By John Wilcockson
Every day at the Tour there is a stage prognostics competition for journalistsand other official race followers sponsored by Sodexho, a hotel and cateringconglomerate. For the past two days, nearly every entry has had one nameat the top of the “betting” slip: Erik Zabel. Each day, the German sprinterhas failed his supporters.After the last-kilometer upset by Rubens Bertogliati on Sunday, it wasworld champion Oscar Freire who won against the odds on Monday. This time,it appeared that Zabel’s Telekom squad had done everything right.The whole team led the chase that brought back the remnants of an all-daybreakaway, and then pulled back the late solo attacks by CréditAgricole riders Jens Voigt and Sébastien Hinault. Through the finalkilometers, mostly down a fast descent into Sarrebrücken, Telekomriders continued to set the tempo.German veteran Rolf Aldag led the Telekom train into the final kilometerbefore passing the relay on to his teammate Steffen Wesemann. Into the700-meter-long finishing straight, the green-jerseyed Zabel was still tuckedcomfortably in the slipstream of the two other Telekom sprinters, DaniloHondo and Gian Matteo Fagnini.It was all looking so easy, but Zabel hadn’t reckoned with a mildlyuphill final 100 meters, and his speed in the last few seconds was notenough to stop first Robbie McEwen and then Freire coming past him frombehind. Freire’s move was a carbon copy of the sprint that won him hissecond rainbow jersey last October in Lisbon — where Zabel was fifth.Freire’s coup — his first stage win at the Tour — was a triumph forthe Mapei-Quick Step team, especially as its regular sprinter Tom Steelsfinished behind the pack for the second day running (the big Belgian arrivedeight minutes back in a small group that also contained the out-of-conditionErik Dekker).Freire has become a strong contender in the green jersey competitionthat Zabel now leads by only five points over the Spaniard, with McEwenanother point back in third. These three are likely to renew their rivalryin Tuesday’s stage 3 into Reims, where a similar, but wider and longerfinish straight awaits them.What will be different is the weather. After a day of hot sunshine inGermany, a storm system is due to hit the 2002 Tour Tuesday, when it hasits first stage in France. Heavy thunder showers are forecast, accompaniedby wind gusts of up to 50 mph. Besides the rain, which is likely to continuethrough the finish, the peloton will have to face head winds on the longrun-in across open fields into the Champagne district.The unfavorable winds are likely to keep the field together, especiallyas every team will want its riders fresh for Wednesday’s important teamtime trial. Unless, that is, an individual like fdjeux.com’s Jacky Duranddecides that a long, solo break through the thunderstorms might net hima stage win.Who will be the name at the top of the prognosticators’ list? The majoritywill probably again go with Zabel, but the smart money will be on McEwen.DETAILSOF STAGE 3: Metz to Reims, 174.5km.
Intermediate sprints at Verdun (57.5km), St, Menehould (100.5km)and Suippes (130km). Cat. 4 climbs at Gravelotte (3km) and Biesme(93.5km). Weather forecast is for thunderstorms in the early afternoon, with heavy rain and gusting winds, followed by lighter rain and head winds of up to 20 mph from the southwest. Temperatures will fall from 77 F. at the start to 68 F. at the finish.