By John Wilcockson
In the end, the 56th Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré came down to a 21km time trial. Not just any time trial, but last Thursday’s uphill test from the Vaucluse vineyards to the mile-high tip of Mont Ventoux, the “windy mountain.” Spanish Tour de France hope Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi won the time trial, and so won the race: the most important victory so far of his young career.
The three stages before the Ventoux were neutralized by the top three teams — Euskaltel, Phonak and U.S. Postal — wanting to keep their respective leaders in good shape for the time trial. And once Mayo broke the Ventoux course record by almost a minute, and Phonak’s Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla went faster than Postal’s Lance Armstrong, the result was set. No one really tried to put a spoke in Mayo’s wheel on the final three days.
“Initially, we were going to work for Sevilla to get him the win,” said Hamilton after the final stage Sunday. “But after the Ventoux we changed our plans, and decided to use the race as preparation for the Tour. The biggest pleasure for me is getting onto the podium with my teammates [to receive the best team award]. We need to rest now and be ready for the Tour.”
Similar views were expressed by the other teams, and that left the way open for the more enterprising riders lower down the classification to go for the daily glory. The one who cashed in the most was Aussie Stuart O’Grady of Cofidis, who took the green points jersey after winning Friday’s stage from George Hincapie in Sisteron. But he had doubts Sunday morning about defending the sprint jersey against Phonak’s José Gutierrez, the winner of Tuesday’s stage into St. Etienne.
“I wasn’t feeling too good this morning in the camping car,” O’Grady said. “To keep the jersey I needed to win the two points sprints before the climbs began. I asked what the time limit would be today, because if I sprinted hard twice before the mountains I thought I’d have a hard time on the climbs.
But O’Grady perked up when his British teammate David Millar, the world time-trial champion, told him they could get in an early break so he could get the two sprints more easily, and maybe have enough time in hand to stay with the pack on the climbs.
With a completely flat opening hour, and a favorable wind, the Millar plan worked to perfection. Frenchman Sandy Casar of Fdjeux.com attacked from the very start in Grenoble, and he was joined by six others: Crédit Agricole’s Dmitriy Muravyev of Kazakhstan, Quick Step’s Pedro Horillo of Spain, Frenchmen Antony Geslin of La Boulangère and Nicolas Reynaud of RAGT-Rover … along with O’Grady and Millar.
“David was very strong,” O’Grady said. He really pulled us clear. In fact, Millar rode so hard that the seven men reached the second sprint at St Jean-en-Royans after 63km with more than six minutes in hand. On the following long, but not steep climb to the Cat. 2 Col de l’Echarasson Millar sat up, was caught by the pack and abandoned at the feed zone halfway though the 200km stage.
The remaining six leaders stretched their lead to almost 13 minutes before starting the final climb, the Cat. 1 Col de Sarcenas, in the Chartreuse massif. Here Casar made his bid to win the stage, but one rider managed to stay with him, O’Grady. The tough Aussie was dropped halfway up the 15km ascent, but he fought back, went over the summit first and dropped Casar on the rapid descent in Grenoble.
Meanwhile, a dozen riders from the rest of the field pulled away on the climb, initially pulled by three of Mayo’s men, then by Hamilton’s impressive guards. Rabobank’s Levi Leipheimer mad a strong attack, and held the Mayo group at bay for a long, long time. But an acceleration by Quick Step’s Juan Mercado and Phonak’s Sevilla condemned the American’s attack.
Mayo never had any reason to be worried, Hamilton climbed impressive on the day after a scary crash; and Armstrong almost fell when his shoe disengaged from the pedal near the top of the last climb. Then, in the sprint for seventh place, 6:44 behind the victorious O’Grady, Armstrong made a sort of statement after his Ventoux defeat by easily outgunning Gutierrez on the line.
Mayo had the final word, of course. “This week was great experience for the Tour,” he said. “We had a very young team here and they got in a lot of hard work that should give them all more confidence next month.
And then there was that matter of his near-two-minute beating of Tour champion Armstrong on the Ventoux. That should give Mayo more confidence for the Alpe d’Huez time trial at the Tour. But don’t expect the Tour to be neutralized beforehand. There’s a lot more at stake in July.