By John Wilcockson
As the Tour de France edges closer to Paris, the sprinters get more nervous with every kilometer that passes under their wheels. Five-time sprint points winner Erik Zabel is one of those men, as for the first time in his reign he is not wearing the green jersey entering the final weekend. He trails 11 points behind Stuart O’Grady, whose consistency over the first 18 stages has given him the lead despite his not winning any stages. Zabel won two stages in the first week, and the German may have to win one of the last two stages if he is to get the better of his Australian rival.
If Zabel is to win a stage, his Telekom team will have to work especially hard to keep the race together on stages 19 and 20. And that’s something the German team may be prepared to do now that team leader Jan Ullrich has locked up second place overall. A mitigating factor though is the team’s reduced strength.
Steffen Wesemann pulled out in the Alps and Jens Heppner broke a clavicle in the mass pileup on Wednesday. Both were important riders in preparing field sprints for Zabel, while his favorite leadout man Gianmatteo Fagnini did not even start. As a result, when the team was leading out Zabel for the sprint at Montluçon on Thursday, the men riding at the front were climbers Kevin Livingston and Giuseppe Guerini -– and Ullrich. Yet even with their help Zabel finished only one place ahead of O’Grady, a difference of one point.
For Zabel to make up his 11-point deficit he will probably have to take a stage win as the points break-down is the following: 1. 35 points; 2. 30 points; 3. 26 points; 4. 24 points; 5. 22 points; 6. 20 points; then a one-point difference for each succeeding place down to one point for 25th. In other words, if Zabel wins a stage and O’Grady takes fourth (or worse), Zabel will be the overall green-jersey winner. There are also two intermediate sprints on each day, with six, four and two points for the first three across the line.
With this in mind, Telekom would clearly like to keep the race together both Saturday and Sunday, to make up some of Zabel’s deficit on the intermediate sprints. That will be particularly difficult Saturday, as the first sprint doesn’t come until 62.5km into the short 149.5km stage from Orléans to Evry. By that point, there’s almost certain to be a breakaway group up the road on a course that uses narrow country roads until late in the stage.
Also, O’Grady’s Crédit Agricole team still has most of the men who contributed to its team time trial victory in the first week: Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt, Chris Jenner, Anthony Morin, Frédéric Bessy and Sebastien Hinault. The squad will try to get at least one rider in every break to stop Zabel having the opportunity to pick up intermediate sprint points; and the French team also has the strength to keep their green jersey leader close to the front prior to the final sprint.
The one question mark regarding O’Grady is his health. A bee stung him during Friday’s time trial, and the effects from that may blunt his sprint over the weekend. But with the incentive to become the first Australian to win the Tour green jersey and be on the Champs-Elysées podium is a huge factor. Another is the likely increase in salary he would receive when he signs an extension to his current contract with Crédit Agricole.
DETAILS OF STAGE 19: Orléans to Evry, 149.5km.Intermediate sprints at Puiseaux (62.5km) and Itteville(125.5km).One Cat. 4 climb at Gironville (87km).