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By Rob Jones, Special to VeloNews.com
Stage six of the Tour de Beauce had two battles going on Saturday. Charles Dionne (Team Canada) won the fight for the stage in front of his hometown crowd, while Nathan O’Neill (Navigators) managed to wrest the yellow jersey off the back of Svein Tuft (Symmetrics) by a slim six seconds after a last, desperate attack on the final climb.
The Quebec City stage was expected to be the toughest of the Tour, and it did not disappoint. The last time this circuit was used was in 1999 for the TransCanada Tour, and it has certainly not gotten easier. The riders start on the Grand Allee in the “upper town” portion of Quebec, in front of the historic Chateau Frontenac hotel. They then ride along the Grand Allee for nearly five kilometers with a tailwind, before turning towards the St Lawrence River and a sharp descent. This is followed by a flat run next to the St Lawrence, unfortunately for them, into the face of a stiff headwind. Finally, there is a sharp, twisting 2-kilometer climb back up to the start-finish, with the gradient surpassing 15% in places. This difficult 14-kilometer circuit had to be covered nine times.
Tuft began the day with a slim six-second lead and, before the start, Navigators director Ed Beamon confirmed that his team was “definitely looking for an opportunity – if we can take the jersey today, we will.”
On paper, Navigators certainly had the strongest squad, and Symmetrics appeared to be overmatched, after having had a tough defense the night before in the 40 lap criterium in St-Georges. The team rose magnificently to the challenge, with Tuft saying afterwards: “The guys were unreal today. They rode superhuman out there to cover every attack. We fought to the fucking bitter end.”
Dionne’s race for the stage win began in the first five kilometers, when a group of 11 riders broke away. In addition to Dionne, the group contained:
Doug Ollerenshaw (Health Net/Maxxis) 17th GCMike Sayers (Health Net/Maxxis) 24th GCOleg Grishkine (Navigators Insurance) 32nd GCDomenico Passuelo (Amore & Vita – Beretta) 37th GCTomasz Lesniak (Paged-MBK-Scout) 40th GCCorey Jay (CRCA Sakonnet) 33rd GCJonathan Sundt (Jittery Joe’s Kalahari) 51st GCEvan Elken (Jittery Joe’s Kalahari) 56th GCRichard Bowker (Ital Pasta Belmire) 54th GCCharles Dionne (Team Canada) 23rd GCAlexandre Nadeau (Team Quebec) 44thLeigh Palmer (CyclingNews.com-Fondriest) 52nd GC
Ollerenshaw was the best placed, but was nearly five and a half minutes down, so the group wasn’t a big threat initially. However, they quickly went two minutes, then three, and were approaching four minutes by the third lap. This was too much, and Symmetrics began to chase. Lap after lap, the team lined up in the wind along the bottom of the course, and lap after lap, they were tested on the climb.
The gap came down to a more manageable 2:20 by the end of lap four, but Symmetrics was doing all the work, with little assistance. Commented one rider: “Andrew (Pinfold) was going around the pack at one point, asking for help … I felt sorry for them up there.”
Eric Wohlberg, the most experienced rider on the Symmetrics squad, put together an effective game plan, according to Tuft. “Eric took charge, and he and Jacob (Erker) went to the front on the flat (in the wind), just rolling it along, keeping everything in check. The others helped where they could, and Cory (Lange) and Pinner (Pinfold) were kept to bring me over the climb. We had to take control like this, or it just would have been an attack fest out there.”
This plan worked so well, and the wind was so strong, that it discouraged any efforts to break the field up further. Mark Walters (Navigators) commented afterwards “They rode awesome out there, they were incredible. I think they did Canadian cycling proud today.”
O’Neill was having his own problems, which also hurt Navigator’s chances of breaking things up. On the fifth lap, he broke his chain on the steepest part of the climb, necessitating a bike change. But the problems didn’t stop there.
“When I got on the spare bike, something didn’t feel right, and I looked down, and my foot was floating all over the place – my cleat was loose. So they (the team car) radioed to the finish, and got my spare pair of shoes out of the team van. Meanwhile, I switched back to my regular bike before the descent, and then they picked up the shoes on the next lap, and I switched them while hanging onto the car.”
While all this drama was going on in the rapidly shrinking peloton, Dionne was getting ready to shake things up at the front. On lap seven he attacked, taking Grishkine and Passuello with him. The remainder of the break (down to six) didn’t immediately chase, with everyone looking at the two Health Net riders; Sayers and Ollerenshaw. Finally, a lap later, Ollerenshaw responded, which completely blew the break apart. Meanwhile, behind, Navigators had finally managed to send off David O’Loughlin, who quickly scooped up Lesniak and Mermer, and was opening a gap on the field.
Dionne was doing all the work along the windy bottom section, and was riding like the possessed. He then attacked a third and final time on the last ascent to solo in ahead of Passuelo and Grishkine, collapsing after he crossed the line.
“I decided once we were only three left at the front that I was going to die before I let this one go. To win this stage, in my hometown, before my home crowd and all my family, it is indescribable. This is my first win of the season; I’ve had lots of seconds and thirds, but this is the first win. I attacked right on the steepest part of the climb, and just put on more gear, more gear all the way … I was ready to die to win.”
Mermer, O’Loughlin and Ollerenshaw came in nearly two minutes later, but what was happening in the battle for the yellow jersey? The Symmetrics team finally blew on the eighth climb, with the exception of Pinfold, Lange and, of course, Tuft. Lange and Pinfold delivered Tuft to the base of the final climb, and it was now down to two riders – Tuft and O’Neill.
As the remnants of the break trickled in, everyone was watching for the yellow jersey. Suddenly, O’Neill came barreling up to the line, just in front of the dozen or so riders who were all that were left of the peloton – including Tuft. O’Neill crossed the line 12 seconds in front of Tuft’s group, enough to give him the jersey by 6 seconds.
“I just had to bury myself,” said O’Neill afterwards, who was still unsure at that point if he had gained enough time to take the jersey. “It was so hard that last kilometer and a half, I just put it in my 53 and ripped it. Just as we entered the right hander leading into the steepest part, I kicked it up and snuck up on the right hand side. There was no reaction, so I just went as hard as I could, and it was enough.”
Tuft was disappointed, but pleased with his team’s performance. “When O’Neill went it was unreal, how fast he was, the amount of power he was able to put out. The last K was on my own, and at that point I was just in damage control mode.”
– Brandon Crichton (Italpasta-Belmire Transport) was the only one of the main rivals for the Espoir jersey to survive in the peloton, so his hold on the jersey appears now to be unassailable.
– Both O’Neill and Tuft know that the race isn’t over, with a hard final circuit race still to come in St-Georges. This stage was Tuft’s first ever major win, in 2001, and it is a stage he likes very much. “Tomorrow is another day, another tough course … I like this course.”
O’Neill, on the other hand, knows that he will be tough to dislodge now from the jersey, and feels confident that he will finish in yellow. “I think it will be like that movie – Fists of Fury! (laughs) It will be a little crazy, but we’ve got the team to handle it. Tomorrow’s course is different from today, easier to control, and we’ve got the strongest team. Plus, I’ve only got one guy to watch.”