By Andrew Hood
Laurent Brochard (Ag2r) won Saturday’s fourth stage and slipped into the overall lead of the Etoile de Bessèges with just one stage remaining.
The victory makes it the first by a French racer of the 2004 season and proves the 36-year-old former world champion still has the desire to race at the sport’s top level.
Brochard outfoxed the younger French rider Sylvain Calzati (MBK-Oktos) and Spanish rider Joseba Zubeldia (Euskaltel) in the 150km stage between Branoux les Taillades and Les Salles du Gardon in France.
Seven riders attacked on the day’s climb at La Baraque and took a one-minute lead on the main bunch. Brochard bridged up the leaders coming down the descent and the group stayed away to the finish. Brochard used his experience against his younger rivals to claim the victory. The main bunch came in more than 10 minutes in arrears.
“This race isn’t finished yet, but I would be very happy to win,” Brochard told the AFP. “It would confirm my form going back to last year, when I finished in the top five of every race after the Tour de France.”
The race concludes Sunday with the 148km stage from Gagnières to Bessèges.
Etoile de Bessèges (UCI 2.3), Stage 4, Branoux les Taillades to Les Salles du Gardon
1. Laurent Brochard (F), Ag2r, 150km in 4 hours, 1 minute, 24 seconds
2. Sylvain Calzati (F), MBK-Oktos
3. Joseba Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, all same time
4. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Credit Agricole, at 1:16
5. David Extebarria (Sp), Euskaltel, s.t.
Overall standings (after four stages)
1. Laurent Brochard (F), Ag2r, 14 hours, 58 minutes, 10 seconds
2. Sylvain Calzati (F), MBK-Oktos, at 0:08
3. Joseba Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:10
4. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), at 1:26
5. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Credit Agricole, same time
Ullrich, Armstrong to square off at Murcia
Cycling fans will get a preview of what’s sure to be the 2004 season’s marquee duel as both Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich have confirmed they will be at the start line at next month’s Tour of Murcia.
According to race organizers, both Ullrich and Armstrong will be among 13 teams set to start the five-stage race March 3-7 in southern Spain.
Ullrich, who will use the Spanish race as his season debut, hopes to topple Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France and defend his gold medal in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
Armstrong, meanwhile, has typically used the Murcia race as his season opener the past few seasons, but this year will make his debut later this month at the Tour of Algarve in southern Portugal (February 18-22). Armstrong said he’ll race at Algarve because of its individual time trial, an even he tries to race as many times as possible during his Tour buildup.
Other big names include Erik Zabel, Paolo Salvodelli and Cadel Evans (all T-Mobile), Joseba Beloki (Boulangere), Francesco Casagrande (Lampre) and Danilo Di Luca (Saeco).
Teams for Tour of Murcia: Illes Balears-Banesto, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Relax-Bodysol, Paternina-Costa de Almería, Cafés Baqué and Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme (all Spanish); U.S. Postal Service (USA), T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner (both German), Brioches La Boulangere (French), Lampre and Saeco (both Italian) and Palmans-Collstrop (Belgian).
Cipo makes season debut Sunday
Mario Cipollini kicks off his 2004 season Sunday in the GP Costa degli Etruschi di Donoratico in Italy with high hopes over forgetting his forgettable departure from last year’s Vuelta a España.
The Lion King was forced to swallow some of his pride when he was compelled to ride the Vuelta after race organizers threatened to give up Domina Vacanze’s place to another team if the 2002 world champion didn’t show up. Cipollini limped through the team time trial and didn’t race again.
Cipollini has won the Etruschi race twice (1998 and 2000) and hopes it’s a springboard to success in the season’s first serious date: Milan-San Remo on March 20.
“I want to be competitive straight away, so I arrive on the start line at the Milan-San Remo in the best shape possible,” said a bronzed Cipollini, who has been training in South Africa.
This year, a re-energized Cipollini says he’s more motivated than ever to prove he’s still the world’s best sprinter, especially after being overshadowed last season by Italian rival Alessandro Petacchi’s history-making run of four or more victories in each of cycling’s grand tours.
Domina Vacanze officials are hopeful Cipollini is back on track after winning a disappointing four races in 2003.
“The train is ready,” Domina Vacanze’s sport director Antonio Salutini told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Fagnini, Scirea and Galletti will race to the death to carry Mario to the sprint.” Liberty still riding Giant bikes
It seems Liberty Seguros’ first wins of the 2004 season came on Giant bikes, not the new BH frames the team is set to ride this season.
According to a report in the Spanish daily AS, the new BH frames hadn’t arrived in time for this week’s Mallorca Challenge and the team was forced to ride last year’s ONCE-issued Giant frames.
The team painted over ONCE’s trademark yellow and black colors and painted them all black. According to AS, the new BH frames won’t be ready until possibly as late as March.
Other teams had their own opening-race hiccups as well. Kelme was racing in last year’s jersey, still waiting for the new Communidad Valenciana-Kelme jerseys to arrive.