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Tour Tidbits: Beloki’s awful anniversary; Aussies green with jersey envy

Joseba Beloki - Facing his demons two years onIt was two years ago today that Joseba Beloki suffered that horrible high-speed crash on the descent of the Col de la Rochette, just as the 2003 Tour de France exited the Alps. Images of that fall, on the day’s last switchback, as he and Lance Armstrong were chasing Alexandre Vinokourov into Gap, sit in the minds of everyone who witnessed it. Beloki, who is back racing the Tour for the first time since then, says the scars of what was his most frightening moment on the bike are still very fresh in his mind. In an interview with the French sports

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Joseba Beloki – Facing his demons two years on
It was two years ago today that Joseba Beloki suffered that horrible high-speed crash on the descent of the Col de la Rochette, just as the 2003 Tour de France exited the Alps. Images of that fall, on the day’s last switchback, as he and Lance Armstrong were chasing Alexandre Vinokourov into Gap, sit in the minds of everyone who witnessed it.

Beloki, who is back racing the Tour for the first time since then, says the scars of what was his most frightening moment on the bike are still very fresh in his mind.

In an interview with the French sports daily L`Equipe, Beloki spoke openly about his hopes and fears, and where he feels his place now is in the peloton. The following is an extract from the interview.

Question: After the first half of the Tour, do you feel disappointed abou how you wen tinthe Alps?

Joseba Beloki: In the stage to Courchevel I finished only five minutes on Armstrong’s group, but it is true that deep down I felt disappointed. Yesterday (stage 11) I wasn’t any better either. After the stages in the Vosges I actually thought I was in better form. But on the Madeleine yesterday I realized there was no point in pushing on. It was wiser to stay with the grupetto.

Q: Two years ago to the day you were seriously hurt in your fall in the Alps. What does it mean to you today to be back in the Tour peloton today?

JB: Ever since I knew I was going to be on the Tour, I have been thinking of that. For me, the Alps have been a marking point in my life. Two years ago I left so much hope on the road and the memory remains so strong. For now, I am a rider who has gone from being one who could one day win the Tour to being an average every day rider who for two years now has never been able to get in front.

Q: Do you plan on spending today in any particular way in memory of that day two years ago?

JB: Even if I am not going back to where I crashed, it will still be a special day.

Q: Beyond the recovery, what has been most difficult for you since that day?

JB: Without doubt having to abandon races because I wasn’t physically and psychologically in good health. I had to return to home, head out training without knowing if I could ever be competitive again. I just hope all that remains as a bad memory.

Q: L Did you ever doubt you could come back?

JB: Yes, to the point of asking myself last September if I could continue to go on like this much longer. Muscle-wise I was no longer operational. I didn’t have any good sensations. In the races I did, I found I couldn’t even follow the peloton. I was bad, so bad that I wondered if it was worth continuing on with my career. The 2004 season was difficult enough. I changed teams twice and never got to settle down.

Q: Do you still have memory of you crash?

JB: Just a few details. It is difficult to forget what happened. I tell myself often that I should forget, but I haven’t. When I see the peloton racing at 50kmh as it has been in the last days, the images of my crash come back.

Aussies eye green jersey again
The door to the Tour de France green jersey has unexpectedly swung open for the Australian sprinters.

Belgian star and green jersey holder Tom Boonen (Quickstep) didn’t start Thursday’s 187km 12th stage from Briançon to Dignes-les-Baines due to a knee injury sustained in a crash on stage 11’s ride to Briançon.

His sudden exit has revived hopes for Queenslander Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) and South Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) to challenge for the Tour’s second most prestigious jersey.

Before Boonen withdrew, the Belgian lead the points competition for which the green jersey awarded with 133 points. In second place was Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) on 128 points.

O’Grady, who has three time finished second in the points competition, was third on 109. While fourth placed McEwen who has won the green jersey twice – in 2002 and last year – had 96 points.

But with Boonen out and Hushovd inheriting the lead, the battle has become a much tighter one. Stage 12 that took the Tour from the Alps to the Haute-Provence and had two early sprints at the 17.5km and 44.5km marks offering points.

At the stage start O’Grady was second and 19 points shy of the lead rather than 24 when Boonen was in, while McEwen was up to third place and 32 points down instead of 37. The timing for the change of landscape of the sprinters’ battle was fitting, considering it comes after the Tour’s passage of the Alps and just before the Pyrénées, which the race will enter on Saturday.

Stage 12 was an opportunity for sprinters like O’Grady who lack that extra top-end speed in bunch sprints, to take a chance at an attack in the hills. Friday’s flatter 13th stage, 173.5km from Miramas to Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast, will be a prime opportunity for a street fighter like McEwen who prefers the bunch sprints, rather than trying to chase bonus points in intermediates.

Interestingly, though, upon hearing the news of Boonen’s withdrawal, both riders played down any speculation that the green jersey contest had been made any easier. McEwen believes Boonen’s exit has robbed the Tour of a team to help his Davitamon-Lotto squad from stopping breaks from getting away.

“Without Boonen there are not many bunch sprinters in the race which will make it harder for us to control the race (and set up a mass sprint),” said McEwen.

O’Grady, too, was cautious, saying that his move up to second on the competition ladder would make him more of a target and harder for him to get in on any potentially successful breakaways.

“With one guy out (of the competition) the chances are better for someone else to win. It will make it more interesting” said O’Grady. “But with me up to second, it will be harder for me to get away.”

With both Australians in top form, and Hushovd more than ready to defend his newly adopted lead; the green jersey race could come down to a three way battle decided only in the Tour’s final and 21st stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, July 24.