By Andrew Hood
Hincapie’s win marks near-American sweep at Dauphiné prologue
George Hincapie’s victory in Sunday’s opening prologue at the Dauphiné Libéré is a sure sign American riders are on-form for July’s Tour de France.
Four of the five top spots went to American riders, with Hincapie just edging Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) by 1 second while Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Lance Armstrong (Disccovery Channel) rounded out the top five. Only Andrey Kashechkin (Credit Agricole) stopped the USA sweep.
“Today was a great win by George,” Discovery’s sport director Johan Bruyneel said on the team’s web page. The victory is Hincapie’s second this season to go along with Kurrne-Brussels-Kuurne in February and the team’s ninth on the season.
“He was clearly not the favorite but he knew he was in great shape and did an amazing ride; especially on the downhill portion of the course, he was impressive,” Bruyneel continued. “He was the only rider on our team I was unable to follow in the car.”
For Leipheimer, the one-second loss has got to sting just a little. In April, he missed out on overall victory in the Tour de Georgia by four seconds.
Still, it’s a very strong sign that Leipheimer’s Tour preparations are right on target.
“On one hand, Levi’s ride is a great result, one we didn’t expect,” said Gerolsteiner’s sport director Reimond Dietzen. “On the hand, it’s very annoying to lose by one second. Two previous riders had crashed and I told ‘LL’ over the radio to be careful. He could have gone faster, but we said to him, ‘don’t risk anything.’ He obviously took that seriously, otherwise he would have won the prologue.”
Landis, meanwhile, rode with confidence to reveal yet again he’s ready to lead Phonak into the Tour de France.
“(Floyd’s ride) is powerful for the morale and gives him self-assurance,” said Phonak sport director Jacques Michaud. “Floyd performance was sensational.”
Concerning Armstrong, Bruyneel said he was satisfied considering it’s the Texan’s first competition since the Tour de Georgia in late April.
“Calculating the fact he had a little incident on the climb and lost some time by pulling his foot out of the pedal, it was a very satisfying test,” Bruyneel said. “I’m happy with his performance.”
The Dauphiné Libéré continues Monday with the 224km first stage from Aix-les-Bains to Givors in what might be the sprinters’ only chance to shine all week.
Hincapie ponders life without Armstrong
George Hincapie is just like a lot of others in the cycling community as he wonders what life will be without Lance Armstrong’s dominating force in the peloton.
Hincapie, the only man to have ridden along Armstrong in his six consecutive Tour de France victories, admits racing will be very different after Armstrong retires following this year’s Tour.
“I don’t know what it will be like without him. Very different for sure,” Hincapie told Reuters after winning Sunday’s prologue. “Every time a young rider fares well, people say he’s the new Lance Armstrong,” Hincapie said. “But there’s only one Lance Armstrong and there will not be a rider of the same caliber in the next century.”
Armstrong has said he will retire after this July’s Tour, a race he has already won a record number of times.
Despite the respect and friendship for a man he will help try to win a seventh Tour, Hincapie for once stole the spotlight on Sunday, winning the Dauphine Libere 7.9 km prologue.
“It was the first time I have beaten Lance in a time-trial. It’s very special,” said the New Yorker, who is more of a one-day classic specialist. “I felt good, in the right tempo from the start and I rode it for myself, not to pave the way for Lance.”
Nozal vows to demonstrate innocence
Isidro Nozal – the Liberty Seguros-Würth rider who tested high for his hematocrit levels before Sunday’s start of the Dauphiné Libéré – has voluntarily left the team and vows to clear his name.
Nozal tested with hematocrit levels at 52.1 percent, higher than the 50-percent “speed limit” and will be duly given a 15-day cooling off period, but it might take longer than that for the Spanish rider to regain his calm.
“I am very surprised and it appears to me something incredible is happening because I was very tranquil,” said Nozal, who was reportedly crying and visibly upset after the news broke. “I have nothing to hide yet I feel impotent because there’s nothing I can do.”
Nozal is scheduled to travel Monday to Valencia where he undergo a series of blood tests at a UCI-sanctioned laboratory to determine if he has banned doping products in his system, something the 2003 Vuelta a España runner-up vigorously denies.
In the meantime, Nozal has voluntarily left the team rather than risk getting fired.
“It’s the only solution, to do the controls and then see what happens,” Nozal said. “I want to prove my innocence, because it’s the only thing I can do for myself and my teammates. I know this is playing with my career, but I have to hope I can prove them wrong.”
It’s the second time inside a month a Liberty Seguros rider has tested high for hematocrit levels. Nuno Ribeiro also tested above the 50-percent level and was duly let go by the team, though later blood tests can back clean for presence of any prohibited products.
Team officials said they were “perplexed” by the blood tests. According to the team, Nozal’s tests are eerily similar to Ribeiro’s case. Both riders were below the UCI speed limit in tests conducted by the team, but failed the UCI-sanctioned tests.
Team manager Manolo Saiz said Nozal was tested in Spain before traveling to France.
“Nozal made an analysis in Oviedo (Spain) on June 1 and we are going to publish those results so there’s no doubt,” said Saiz, revealing that Nozal had a 46 percent hematocrit, 15.2 hemoglobin and 1.2 reticulites, levels Saiz called “reasonably normal.”
“When they woke us up (Sunday) morning, we did it with all normality, because we didn’t expect this,” Saiz said. “It’s logical that people will think otherwise, but we’re perplexed and we don’t understand it.”
Heras making Tour test in France
Despite the Nozal problems, Liberty Seguros-Würth rolled on in the Dauphiné Libéré with Roberto Heras looking to hone his form ahead of July.
The two-time Vuelta a España champion recently completed a recon mission of some of the key Tour de France stages and enters the week-long Dauphiné without any major goals rather than continuing on his line toward the Tour de France.
“I’m not worried about 100 percent now because it’s still a long time to the start of the Tour and even more so for the mountains,” Heras said. “It’s been a month since I’ve raced and I want to test myself a little to confirm that I am good in respect to the others.”
Heras spent 15 days training in his native Bejar in western Spain and another two weeks in Girona, where he now lives with his wife and family. He also inspected key Tour stages ahead of July’s battle.
“The Tour stages have impressed me this year, it’s going to be a hard Tour and the 55km individual time trial will complicate things,” Heras said. “The objective at the Dauphiné is to climb the long cols that are similar to the Tour and find my rhythm.”