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This isn’t supposed to be a contact sport

Watching the so-called flat stages of the Tour this week may seem alittle boring. The same scenario seems to play out every day. It startswith lots of attacks, none of which gain more than a few seconds. By thetime live TV comes on, a small breakaway will have developed, generallywith a few of the regional French riders prominent. Then the peloton, pulledby the sprinters’ teams, starts to close in, usually resulting in a masssprint finish.The only real excitement for the casual viewer is what happens in thefinal few meters, which Friday resulted in a hard-earned stage win forworld No. 1 Erik

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By John Wilcockson

Watching the so-called flat stages of the Tour this week may seem alittle boring. The same scenario seems to play out every day. It startswith lots of attacks, none of which gain more than a few seconds. By thetime live TV comes on, a small breakaway will have developed, generallywith a few of the regional French riders prominent. Then the peloton, pulledby the sprinters’ teams, starts to close in, usually resulting in a masssprint finish.The only real excitement for the casual viewer is what happens in thefinal few meters, which Friday resulted in a hard-earned stage win forworld No. 1 Erik Zabel.What you can’t see on television are the challenges thrown up by thecourse. A flat stage is never really all that flat. Friday’s stage6 was constantly going up short climbs and down winding descents. The windpicked up through the afternoon and was generally a head wind. And thehuge crowds on the wooded hills and in the narrow-streeted villages keptthe riders constantly on the alert.Every day, a dozen or so riders get involved or delayed by pileups —which are usually caused by one rider’s front wheel hitting the rear wheelof another. One man probably stays down and gets carted off in an ambulance,while others struggle into the finish with bloodied limbs or faces.On Friday, the rider who finished last, French domestique ChristopheOriol of the AG2R team, had some cuts on his right hand and knee. His legand fingers were covered in dried blood. He arrived on his own, 12 minutesback, a half-minute behind two others who had also been delayed by a pileup25km out. The rider who didn’t get back on his bike was the talented Kazakhrider Aleksandr Shefer of Alessio. He had multiple head wounds and wasundergoing a brain scan as these words are being written.The major victim of Thursday’s pileup — also 25km from the finish —was the Italian Marco Pinotti of Lampre-Daikin. Besides a broken nose,Pinotti broke two teeth and needed 11 stitches to his cut chin and upperlip. In the same crash, Belgian star Rik Verbrugghe of Lotto-Adecco fracturedhis right clavicle.Besides the known injuries, there are plenty that don’t get reported.For instance, many riders have bruises on their arms and shoulders fromspectators who lean too far over the barriers, some waving the giant greencardboard hands given out by the green-jersey sponsor, PMU. Others, likeAussie Brad McGee yesterday, clip the actual barriers and tear a shoe orbruise a foot.Another thing that can’t properly be appreciated from watching the Touron TV is the speed of the race. On Friday, against a gusting head wind,the peloton covered almost 49km in the final hour, 47km in the hour beforethat, and 46km in the hour before that. And this was on a course that wasalmost always twisting and turning, rising and  falling. When theroad is flat and straight, the peloton is moving at 60 kph or faster, almost40 mph.On Saturday, the speeds will again be high, and the expected  crosswindscould cause problems for riders who are feeling the effects of this firstweek’s constant action. There’ll probably again be a mass pileup. As forthe finish, it comes at the top of a long hill, similar to the one lastSunday that proved to be a springboard to victory for Rubens Bertogliati.The young Swiss may try a similar move at Avranches, but Zabel’s Telekomteammates will not allow that to happen again, and they’ll then focus ongiving Zabel the lead-out he needs to again beat Oscar Freire and RobbieMcEwen.It won’t be boring, that’s for sure, and those final meters should againhave you on your feet cheering.DETAILSOF STAGE 7: Bagnoles-de-l’Orne to Avranches, 176km.
INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: St. Georges des Groseillers (29.5km),Aulnay-sur-Odon(64km) and Tessy-sur-Vire (107km). Cat. 4 climbsat Mont Pinçon(61km) and L’Embranchement (154km).WEATHER FORECAST: Cloudy skies for most of the day with a smallchance of rain showers during the stage. The skies should clear on reachingthe coast at the finish. Temperatures in the low-60s and winds from thenorthwest.