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Tour de France: Aitor earns his keep

Aitor Gonzalez's win in the 14th stage of the Tour de France may have given him cause to celebrate, but it has to count as one of the most expensive returns on investment for any sponsor in the sport of cycling. For sure, Fassa Bortolo's Gonzalez was smiling after he time-trialed away from a 10-man break to finish 27 seconds ahead of Frenchmen Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak) and Christophe Mengin (Fdjeux.com). But considering the promise that came with his $750,000 salary, one Tour stage win and a time-trial success at the 2003 Giro d'Italia in his two years with Fassa is hardly great value for

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Gonzales outkicks the break

Gonzales outkicks the break

Photo: AFP

Photo: Graham Watson

Aitor Gonzalez’s win in the 14th stage of the Tour de France may have given him cause to celebrate, but it has to count as one of the most expensive returns on investment for any sponsor in the sport of cycling.

For sure, Fassa Bortolo’s Gonzalez was smiling after he time-trialed away from a 10-man break to finish 27 seconds ahead of Frenchmen Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak) and Christophe Mengin (Fdjeux.com).

But considering the promise that came with his $750,000 salary, one Tour stage win and a time-trial success at the 2003 Giro d’Italia in his two years with Fassa is hardly great value for the Italian cement firm that sponsors him.

Gonzalez was a self-touted challenger for a top overall finish in this year’s Tour. He even rated himself as a threat to five-time winner Lance Armstrong.

Admittedly, the son of a rabbit farmer from Alicante, Gonzalez offered seemingly solid credentials when Fassa signed him 2003. After a top-10 finish in the 2002 Giro d’Italia (including two stage wins), he won the Vuelta a España by overcoming race leader Roberto Heras in the final-stage time trial.

After his signature 2002 season, Gonzalez was regarded as a hot commodity and when Fassa Bortolo signed him, the Italian team thought it finally had the horsepower to put one of its riders atop the podium of a grand tour. Ideally, the Tour de France.

But his debut season under Giancarlo Ferretti was remembered more for its problems than successes. He only raced the Giro last year because he was ordered to do so. He participated unenthusiastically, although he did win a stage in the process. But then in the Tour he quit after week one. And he didn’t get much farther in the Vuelta.

This year’s Tour was to have been his race of redemption. Yet, until his win in Nîmes Gonzalez’s Tour had been raced in anonymity. He rode poorly in the Pyrénées, especially in Saturday’s stage 13 to Plateau de Beille, where he finished 33:49 behind a victorious Armstrong.

Armstrong - seen here with Bobby Julich - was none too concerned by seeing Gonzalez go.

Armstrong – seen here with Bobby Julich – was none too concerned by seeing Gonzalez go.

Photo: Graham Watson

Gonzalez, who started Sunday’s stage in 44th place, 39:28 behind French race leader Thomas Voeckler (La Boulangere), may have won a handy chunk of time back. But he moved up to only 32nd overall, at 24:56, with his hopes of a top overall finish already gone.

“I can understand why the Giancarlo is disappointed in me, maybe I haven’t been up to their expectations. After yesterday’s stage I knew that my general classification bid was over. That’s why today I wanted to go out and win a stage and start a whole new Tour. I’m lucky, it happened on the first time I tried.”

The winning break that formed after 100km finished 14:12 ahead of a peloton that included all the overall favorites, with Voeckler retaining his 22-second overall lead on Armstrong.

The pack was led home by Australian green jersey wearer Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo), who took the sprint for 11th place from Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Germany’s Danilo Hondo (Gerolsteiner), Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and German Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), in that order.

Hot day, fast start
Despite the rigors of the second Pyrenean stage, Sunday’s race in hot and humid conditions — taking the Tour from the Herault to the Gard region in southern France — was contested at a break-neck average speed of 44.675 kph.

It was one of only two stages in this year’s Tour with no categorized climbs. But the absence of any incline did nothing to stop the ferocity of the attacks by riders running out of chances to win a stage. There were five substantial escapes in the first 85km, all of them chased down by the Quick Step and Lotto-Domo teams.

The decisive break came at 98km when Phonak’s Jalabert counterattacked alone. He was joined 2km later by Gonzalez and the eight others. The 10-man group then forged ahead to gain a lead of 13:25 by the second of two intermediate sprints in Villevielle (166.5km).

... while earlier attempts did not.

… while earlier attempts did not.

Photo: Graham Watson

The peloton, mainly led by Brioches la Boulangere in defense of Voeckler’s yellow jersey, started to cut back the advantage. But it was soon clear that the break would stay away with nine teams represented in it.

The fight for the stage win began in the last 10km with an attack by Spaniard Igor Golzalez de Galdeano (Liberty Seguros). The move quickly failed, as did the next by Aitor Gonzalez and another by Frenchman Pierrick Federigo (Credit Agricole) with 7km remaining.

A serious chase might have been tough in the heat and wind.

A serious chase might have been tough in the heat and wind.

Photo: Graham Watson

Aitor Gonzalez then quickly launched his winning attack and, within 2 kilometers, built a 12-second lead, enough to fend off a belated chase by Jalabert and Mengin.

Jalabert, the brother of French cycling great Laurent, who retired two years ago, later said Gonzalez’s attack had caught them by surprise.

“I think the strongest guy won today,” said Jalabert, who came second at 25 seconds in front of Mengin.

Jalabert said he had been aiming for victory in a bid to soften the blow of losing team leader Tyler Hamilton, who abandoned the Tour during Saturday’s tough 13th stage. But Gonzales proved too wily and too fast for his erstwhile breakaway companions.

The peloton actually had time to take in the scenery today

The peloton actually had time to take in the scenery today

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“It was impressive,” Jalabert said. “He (Gonzalez) attacked with six kilometers to go and, well, he’s just a good rider. There was a slight climb at the three-kilometer mark, which made it a bit harder to chase him down. But he was just too fast.”

All the main contenders arrived just over 14 minutes behind with Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) defending his green points jersey by taking the field sprint ahead of Norwegian challenger Hushovd.

McEwen, who started the day with a nine-point lead on T-Mobile sprinter Erik Zabel – a six-time green-jersey winner – was pushed all the way on the sprint as he tried to claim the remaining points on offer at the finish line. After O’Grady appeared to be stuck in a clutch of riders at the back, the 32-year-old McEwen appeared out of nowhere to push his front wheel ahead of Hushovd’s on the line.

McEwen now leads Zabel in the green-jersey competition by 13 points and Hushovd by 16. Meanwhile, Voeckler retained the yellow jersey by 22 seconds over Armstrong with Italian Ivan Basso (CSC) third at 1:39.

Voeckler and the rest of the GC riders were all happy to see a break of non-contenders succeed as they look forward to Monday’s second rest day.

“The stage started really fast, and after all the early attacks it was a relief when the breakaway was allowed to go,” said Voeckler. “We went around 46kph for the first two hours, and U.S. Postal weren’t letting anyone leave the peloton. But when we saw that the most dangerous riders were more than 30 minutes adrift overall, we relaxed a bit in the second half of the stage.”

Added McEwen: “It was really hard today. The pace was infernal in the first 100km. After the past six days I’m looking forward to the rest day on Monday.”

Following Monday’s rest day, the Tour resumes with a climb-speckled 180km race from Valréas to Villard-de-Lans.-Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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