By Andrew Hood
Discovery Channel earned back some pride Friday with a timely stage win from Yaroslav Popovych just 24 hours after the team’s overall chances for an eighth consecutive Tour de France victory melted in Thursday’s rugged five-climb stage across the Pyrénées.
With the odds of a Discovery rider winning in Paris in the realm of fantasy rather than reality, the team pow-wowed before the start of the torrid 211.5km stage 12 from Luchon to Carcassonne to formulate a new strategy for the second half of the Tour.
The plan: Get into breakaways and attack for stage wins.
The tactic worked superbly, with Popovych initiating an attack when the pack raced through the day’s feed zone, just after another breakaway, featuring teammate George Hincapie, was gobbled up.
When the break established a winning lead, Popovych, the 2001 world under-23 champion made repeated attacks against his faster fellow escapees, Spain’s Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Italy’s Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) and French hope Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole). Popovych was finally successful in extricating himself from the break in the streets of ancient Carcassonne just before the 3km-to-go marker.
“I was so disappointed [Thursday] because I really expected something different,” Popovych told reporters in fluent Italian. “Today is another day, you have to carry on because you cannot change what’s happened. When I stepped out of the bus [this morning], [team boss] Johan [Bruyneel] said to me, ‘Okay, now you go and win a stage.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Popovych took back 4:25 of his nine-minute deficit to overall leader Floyd Landis (Phonak) and clawed his way back into the top 10. And last year’s best young rider refused to speculate that all was lost in this first Tour of the post-Lance Armstrong era.
“We will see what happens in the next stages,” Popovych said, now 10th overall, 4:15 back. “If I am as bad in the Alps as I was in the Pyrénées, I doubt it, but Paris is still a long way, so we’ll see what happens.”
Landis, meanwhile, kept his cool on his first day in the yellow jersey. None of the four breakaways posed a major threat to his grip on the maillot jaune, but that could change if Popovych continues to be aggressive.
“Sure, Popovych is now less than five minutes behind in the general classification thanks to his win today, but it wasn’t so important to reel his escape group in,” said Landis, who finished safely in the bunch in 20th place. “If he tries again, you can be sure that we won’t allow him the luxury of the advantage he achieved today.”
Despite Popo’s big stage win, the team is still taking its lumps. Two Discovery Channel riders abandoned Friday: Paolo Savoldelli, with cuts and 10 stitches above his eyebrow after a crash while descending Thursday’s evacuation, and Benjamin Noval, with leg pain.
Long, hot day
Temperatures were already nudging into the 80s in shady Luchon for the first of three transition stages between the Pyrénées and the Alps.
For the first time during this Tour, big crowds pushed in around the Discovery Channel bus, with journalists curious to know what caused the team’s uncharacteristically bad performance in Thursday’s decisive climbing stage. The team’s quartet of expected Armstrong’s successors — Popovych, Hincapie, Savoldelli and José Azevedo — all fell flat.
But Friday morning a dejected Hincapie sounded like he was ready to shift gears and adapt the team’s new aggressive policy.
“We have a team to make a great Tour. If things aren’t going great for us now, we have to keep working until things can turn around,” Hincapie said. “We’re the same team as always, sometimes things don’t go as well as you’d like. I worked as hard as I could and I arrived in the best form of my life, but things didn’t work out.”
In contrast, the mood was jubilant at the Phonak team bus, where Landis poked his head out of the door to find a wall of cameras waiting for his first appearance as race leader. “I didn’t sleep in the yellow jersey,” Landis chirped. “Was I supposed to?”
After nearly a week of cooler temperatures, the thermometer got a workout Friday as the mercury shot up to the 90s. And with France celebrating Bastille Day, French riders were eager to make the winning move.
Le Mevel started early, jumping out at 6km. He quickly found company with Jens Voigt (CSC) and a host of others, but they didn’t get more than a 30-second lead before they were caught coming into the day’s main obstacle, the Cat. 2 Col des Ares at 27km.
Hincapie followed another promising move that included Voigt, Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears) and Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), and the quartet found more followers as they worked up the climb.
The group grew to 15 riders and looked to have the day’s move in its legs, but the gap didn’t open up to more than 1:15 as Davitamon-Lotto and Milram helped drive the chase. The break was cut to five — Hincapie, Voigt, Michael Albasini (Liquigas), David Moncoutié (Cofidis) and Stéphane Goubert (AZG2R) — and it ended at 94km.
Four kilometers later, Popovych initiated the next acceleration. Le Mevel did his level best to keep France represented and joined with Freire and Ballan to catch the animated Ukrainian. Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) made a half-hearted chase after Freire, to defend his green jersey, but soon pulled up. The gap opened up fast and Phonak was content to let the foursome ride away.
“This was a really difficult stage to control because the peloton was always nervous during the first two hours,” Landis said. “We then just had to ride to maintain a reasonable gap to those in the escape group. It was an effort that demanded a lot of effort from everyone in my team.”
Popo on the go-go
The undulating run into Carcassonne, home to one of the world’s most spectacular walled cities, provided the perfect trampoline for the break.
Popovych, a prolific winner in the amateur ranks who earned the nickname “Merckx of the Espoirs,” knew he stood no chance in a finish against three-time world champion Freire and Italian sprinter Ballan.
His only hope was to attack the others and solo in for victory. Popovych attacked the first time with 8km to go, which dismissed Le Mevel from the break. Ballan chased down Popovych and had to defend again when Freire made some jabs. Popovych made two more attacks before his successful one with 3km to go.
“I had no choice but to attack, because I knew I would lose against Freire and Ballan,” said Popovych, who quickly poo-pooed rumors of a Discovery-Rabobank alliance against Lampre’s Ballan. “I think if Freire didn’t react it was because he was waiting for Ballan to do something. I think the circumstances of the race were to my advantage.”
Freire spoke only briefly after the stage, telling Spanish reporters that he simply didn’t have the legs to follow Popovych and Ballan when the attacks started late in the stage.
“It’s a beautiful stage win for me and the team,” Popovych said. “It was a very complicated finish because both Freire and Ballan are very fast. I decided to attack to avoid the sprint. And the result was great.”
Popovych’s victory will surely reanimate the team just as Armstrong is set to visit the Tour in what’s sure to be a dramatic return. The seven-time champion is expected to arrive either Monday or Tuesday and stay with the team for a few days.
Maybe that’s just the inspiration Discovery needs to show their true climbing form in the Alps. Preliminary Results
1. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel
2. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre, 00:27
3. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, 00:29
4. Christophe Le Mevel (F), Credit Agricole, 00:35
5. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, 04:25
6. Robbie Mc Ewen (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 04:25
7. Francisco Ventoso (Sp), Saunier Duval, 04:25
8. Erik Zabel (G), Milram, 04:25
9. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre, 04:25
10. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole, 04:25
Overall, after Stage 12
1. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak
2. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 00:08
3. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, 01:01
4. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 01:17
5. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, 01:52
6. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, 02:29
7. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, 03:22
8. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), Agritubel, 03:33
9. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 03:44
10. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, 04:15
To see how today’s stage developed, simply CLICKHERE to bring up our Live Update Window.