By Andrew Hood
There’s just no stopping Alessandro Petacchi.
Not even a suicidal two-man breakaway in Friday’s hot, sweaty stage into Lyon could derail the Petacchi express.
Crédit Agricole’s Stuart O’Grady and La Boulangére’s Anthony Geslin peeled away from the pack, a few kilometers away from the day’s first points sprint at 36.5km. They lasted out there for nearly 200km, only to be brought back in the final kilometer of Friday’s stage, the second-longest of this Tour.
Petacchi said he told his Fassa Bortolo teammates that he was cooked after coming over two categorized climbs in the final 70km and didn’t have the legs to fight for the final sprint into Lyon, one of the Tour’s original six host cities.
All that changed when he scented the finish line, however.
The Italian sprinter just couldn’t help himself and he shot ahead to his fourth stage victory of the week and vaulted into the green points jersey.
“I had no expectations to win today,” said Petacchi, who won easily ahead Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com). “Two and a half kilometers from the finish I told my teammates that I wasn’t going to sprint. But Nicola (Loda) pulled me to the front and when I saw the finish line I was like a man possessed.”
Petacchi’s win shot him into the green jersey, some 34 points ahead of defending points champion Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo), who couldn’t contest the finish after crashing with Telekom’s Erik Zabel about 5km from the finish.
Petacchi said this weekend’s climbing stages in the Alps would determine if he hangs around to challenge for the jersey all the way to Paris. “We’ll see how I do,” said the fast Fassa Bortolo sprinter, who won six stages at this year’s Giro d’Italia, and has now totaled 15 wins this season. “The next three days will tell me. I hardly even trained after the Giro and I’m not in top form for the mountains.”
We’ve had five sprint finishes and Petacchi’s won four. All I’ve got to show for it is some skin on the road.
With Petacchi’s amazing win streak — he’s won four out of the five sprint finishes so far — the other Tour sprinters are scratching their heads as the Tour switches gears Saturday and heads into the French Alps.
“I can’t take a trick here,” said McEwen. “It’s disappointing and it’s not good for the morale. We’ve had five sprint finishes and Petacchi’s won four. All I’ve got to show for it is some skin on the road.”
American Fred Rodriguez did all he could despite feeling ill to help Vini Caldirola teammate Romans Vainsteins, who finished fifth. “We were working for Romans today because I’ve been feeling sick the past day and a half,” said Rodriguez, who finished 16th despite the rotten gut. “I got Romans where he needed to be but I guess he didn’t have the legs to win. The heat was hard today, but I felt better than I expected over the climbs.”
O’Grady on the run; Peña still in yellow
O’Grady said he never wanted to spend the entire stage banging heads off the front, but that’s exactly what happened. Despite temperatures pushing into the mid-90s and the Tour’s first mountain stages looming ahead, there were lots of attacks early in Friday’s stage that pushed south and east toward Lyon.
O’Grady split from the group a 1.5km before the day’s first points sprint and French rider Geslin followed his wheel. The pair kept pushing it and found themselves with a three-minute lead within 15km.
“I planned to attack at the first points sprint, I didn’t want to attack for 190km or whatever it was,” O’Grady said. “After we went away we settled into a good rhythm and it felt comfortable.” At 82km, the pair had a lead of 18:05 and finally the peloton started to wake from its slumber.
With the break up the road, U.S. Postal’s Victor Hugo Peña was enjoying his second day in the race leader’s yellow jersey. Before the start, the Colombian said, “It’s an honor to become the first to wear the jersey, but I hope I am only the first of many. This is a dream come true for me, but this is dedicated to all Colombian cyclists who have come before me.”
O’Grady and Geslin held firm over the Cat. 3 Côte des Echarmeaux at 159km and the Cat. 4 Côte de Lozanne at 207.5km. The pair then made it into the packed streets of downtown Lyon, but fell 500 meters short as fdjeux.com and Vini Caldirola drove home the sprint.
“I tried to drop Geslin over the climb, but when he came back I thought we might have a chance to make it,” said O’Grady. “I know I will pay for my efforts, but it was an opportunity to win a stage and you can’t knock those back.”
Fdjeux.com’s Christophe Mengin slipped back into the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey after grabbing points at the day’s first climb and moved back ahead of Jean Delatour’s Frederic Finot, who swiped the jersey from Mengin in Thursday’s long break.
Two men dropped out of the Tour on Thursday. ONCE-Eroski’s Angel Vicioso didn’t take the start after crashing coming into Thursday’s finish and breaking the humerus bone in his elbow, while Alessio’s Fabio Baldato abandoned at the feed zone after crashing three times this week.
Favorites ready to rumble
The Tour switches gear for Saturday’s 230.5km stage from Lyon to Morzine and features the Tour’s first mountain climbs.
Four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong, sitting comfortably in second place just one second behind teammate Peña, is poised to jump into the yellow jersey over the next three days in the Alps if he has the legs to hold off a long list of contenders.
“Saturday is the first test to see how everybody is,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. “Lance is good, he’s ready.”
Journalists waited outside his team bus Friday morning, but when asked how he felt going into the Alps, all Armstrong said was, “Good, good.” At Friday’s finish, Armstrong ducked into a team car waiting at the finish line and sped away.
Bruyneel said he expects outsiders to go on the attack Saturday while the big guns will wait for the brutally steep summit finish to Alpe d’Huez before making their move.
“It’s not for us to attack, so maybe there will be a breakaway and they can make it over the climb and go for the win,” Bruyneel said. “We will let the race dictate our tactics. The team will work for Lance.”
I am tired of always finishing behind Armstrong. I will attack and try to do what I can. I’ve nothing to lose now.
Gilberto Simoni of Saeco enters the Alps with a three-minute handicap on Armstrong, a big margin that will force the two-time Giro d’Italia to attack even more aggressively if he hopes to dethrone Armstrong.
“The team time trial was a big disappointment but we’re trying to look at the bigger picture of the whole race and we know that the two stages in the Alps are a great chance for me to fight back,” Simoni told Italian reporters. “If things go well this weekend I think I can save my Tour. It’s going to be more difficult to win after losing three minutes, but I think I can do something in the mountains.”
Last year’s runner-up Joseba Beloki of ONCE says he’s weary of being a runner-up.
“I am tired of always finishing behind Armstrong. I will attack and try to do what I can,” Beloki told Spanish journalists. “I’ve nothing to lose now and so want to try to turn things around.”
Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton made it through another day after fracturing his right clavicle in a spill Sunday. X-rays taken Thursday evening show no worsening of the injury, something Hamilton took in stride.
“The pain is pretty much the same, the fracture is pretty much the same,” he said. “You can say it’s encouraging because it’s not getting any worse, but it would be nice if you saw some improvement.”
Hamilton said he would do his best Saturday and then make an assessment if he can finish Sunday’s climb at L’Alpe d’Huez. Hamilton repeated that he’s not interested in just finishing the Tour. “My legs are good and I hope to do well, but I can’t make any guarantees,” he said. “Take away the injury and I have good form, but my body’s been fighting, fighting. It’s not just the fractured collarbone, but I have whiplash, aches and pains all over. I can’t sit on the bike like I normally do. It’s disappointing, but I am trying to get beyond it and look forward.”
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