By John Wilcockson
For all the exposure they receive in July, Tour de France contenders rarely cross each other’s paths in the preceding months — particularly in a competitive situation. That’s why the French classic Paris-Camembert on Tuesday was so unusual. Americans Lance Armstrong and Bobby Julich, along with British standout David Millar, all came to the start line with something to prove. Armstrong is nearing the end of his phase-one race preparations for this year’s Tour, and wanted to improve on the second place he took in Paris-Camembert last year. Julich, too, was after a win — “This and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday are my big aims for the spring,” he said. “Then I go back home [to Reno, Nevada] for four weeks of training at altitude.” And Millar — who last year defeated Armstrong in the Tour’s opening time trial — wanted to continue the winning streak he started last week at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
The finale of the 208km Paris-Camembert race is comprised of three circuits, each with two climbs in the rolling hills of Normandy. The final circuit is the most difficult, as it uses very narrow back roads in the Camembert cheese countryside, with the 16-percent Côte du Moulin climb, followed by the 17-percent Mur des Champeaux, 10km from the finish.
With 25km to go, Armstrong told his U.S. Postal Service team that he was feeling good and asked them to bring back a two-man breakaway that had a 40-second lead. This they did in the style they show at the Tour. Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer, Cédric Vasseur, Steffen Kjaergaard and Jamie Burrow rode so hard at the head of the pack that they split the peloton, and brought back the breakaway just as the second-to-last climb began.
“The team was at the front at the bottom,” Armstrong said, “and then Cedric [Vasseur] did a great job. He was flying up the first steep hill — he basically made the selection to 15 guys. I could hardly come around him.”
Armstrong did come around, and his surge saw him cross the summit in first ahead of Frenchmen Laurent Brochard of Jean Delatour, with the race’s defending champion Didier Rous of Bonjour right behind them. Also in the split were both Julich and Millar, along with Mercury-Viatel’s Fabrizio Guidi — who was racing for the first time since crashing into a truck at the Three Days of De Panne two weeks ago.
Now the leaders hit the day’s toughest hill, the Champeaux “wall.”Enter Millar, the young Cofidis rider from Scotland who is now fulfilling his huge talent. He had already led the pack over an earlier climb, and now decided to attack. “I went right at the foot of the hill,” Millar said, “but it was a little too early.” And he couldn’t hang on when Brochard came charging past with Guidi on his wheel.
Guidi cramped just before the top, allowing Brochard to take a 50-meter lead. Guidi dropped back to a chase group led by Armstrong, while Millar was gapped. Luckily, he was joined by the on-form Aussie, Scott Sunderland of Fakta, who had crashed on the steep descent from the Moulin climb. Together they joined the chasers, now 13-strong, still 100 meters behind the inspired Brochard.
The Frenchman hung on to take his second victory within a week, with a nine-second margin, to take the overall lead in the season-long French Cup series. As for the two men who had chased back — Millar and Sunderland — they dominated the uphill sprint to take second and third respectively, while Guidi cramped again, taking fourth place.
With the race over, Armstrong was whisked away for a quick massage before boarding a flight to Spain, where he’s due to start the Tour of Aragon on Wednesday. As for those other Tour challengers, Millar and Julich head to Belgium for Sunday’s World Cup race in Liège. The next time they will see Armstrong will probably be at the Tour de France prologue on July 7.
PARIS-CAMEMBERT, France. April 17.
1. Laurent Brochard (F), Jean Delatour, 208km in 4:54:04 (42.439 kph); 2. David Millar (GB), Cofidis, at 0:09; 3. Scott Sunderland (Aus), Fakta; 4. Fabrizio Guidi (I), Mercury-Viatel; 5. David Moncoutie (F), Cofidis; 6. Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus), Lotto-Adecco; 7. Brad McGee (Aus), La Francaise des Jeux; 8. Didier Rous (F), Bonjour; 9. Stephane Heulot (F), BigMat-Auber 93; 10. Cedric Vasseur (F), U.S. Postal Service.
Others: 11. Bobby Julich (USA), Credit Agricole; 13. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, both s.t.; 50. Henk Vogels (Aus), Mercury-Viatel, at 4:26; 52. Tyler Hamilton (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 7:31; 53. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 54. Jamie Burrow (GB), U.S. Postal Service, both s.t.