By Andrew Hood
The official announcement that Alexandre Vinokourov is leaving T-Mobile at the end of this season has set the tongues wagging at the Tour de France.
Rumor had it that Vinokourov was headed to Discovery Channel even before Wednesday’s news, but team officials say the blond Kazakh isn’t necessarily on their wish list.
“Vino’ is one o the top riders in the peloton, but I never thought of Vino’ as a candidate of winning the Tour,” said Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel. “He’s an interesting rider, but he’s interesting for everybody.”
Instead, Discovery Channel was hoping to lure Italian breakout star Ivan Basso away from Team CSC, but Monday’s news that Basso signed a three-year contract extension put the kibosh on that story.
“That’s bad news for us,” Bruyneel said when he was told Basso had signed with Bjarne Riis through 2008.
Filling Lance Armstrong’s shoes has become the story at this year’s Tour.
George Hincapie’s victory in the “queen’s stage” to Pla d’Adet last weekend put the speculation machine into overdrive, with even Armstrong suggesting that the New Yorker could step into the void once he retires in four days’ time.
Bruyneel said that scenario is only likely if Hincapie gives up his beloved classics, something no one at Discovery might be willing to risk.
“If he would change his focus, forget about the classics and focus on stage races, he could get far, but there are no guarantees,” Bruyneel said. “If he focuses on spring classics, he’s one of the best.”
Sean Yates, assistant sport director at Discovery Channel, said the riders’ market has suddenly tightened with Basso’s extension at Team CSC.
“There’s not much out there right now,” Yates said. “We have some strong riders on the team, but it’s obvious things will change with Lance gone. No one can replace him.”
Armstrong matches Hinault’s yellow-jersey collection
Lance Armstrong claimed the yellow jersey for the 79th time in his career at the end of Wednesday’s 17th stage, equaling five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault.
The only rider who has more is Eddy Merckx, who won 111 yellow jerseys during 1969-1977.
There’s been some confusion among Tour officials on how to count the yellow jersey. In earlier Tours, riders would often race two stages in one day, officially giving the rider two jerseys but only counting the single day.
Armstrong, meanwhile, is en route to finishing his career Sunday with 83 yellow jerseys, assuming he doesn’t lose it between here and Paris.
A more telling statistic is that during Armstrong’s seven-year winning streak, he’ll have worn the leader’s jersey more than his regular team kit, with 83 days in the maillot jaune and 64 without.
Oh-so-close for Arvesen
Kurt-Asle Arvesen almost pulled off a surprise victory with a blistering attack 1.5km from the finish in Wednesday’s stage. Paolo Savoldelli caught him with 50 meters remaining to steal the win.
“It was such a bitter moment,” Arvesen said. “It was like going from heaven to hell in 20 meters. I gave it my all. I felt the lactic acid up to my ears. Savoldelli was just too strong.”
Both riders were the remnants of a 17-man break of non-GC contenders 35km into the Tour’s longest stage of the year.
“I was convinced (Sebastien) Hinault was the strongest in the group, so I wanted to make a long sprint,” Arvesen said of the French rider who wound up fourth, 11 seconds back. “I wanted to take the initiative in the race, rather than just finish third and wonder if I didn’t try at all.”
For Arvesen, a hard-working gregario for Team CSC, he knows chances like that don’t come very often in the Tour.
“That’s bike racing, 190 riders start and only one wins,” he said. “It’s not like soccer, when 22 start and 11 win.”
Valverde mulls Vuelta start
Alejandro Valverde is not a happy camper. Instead of riding over the Pyrenees, he was home in Murcia, Spain, nursing a sore knee that knocked him out of the Tour de France
According to Illes Balears officials, Valverde is reconsidering a start in the Vuelta a España, which he vowed not to race this season.
“It depends on how he recovers,” said sport director Eusebio Unzue. “If he’s feeling good, he might race the Vuelta.”
Valverde, 25, was leading the young riders’ competition and had won the stage to Courchevel ahead of Lance Armstrong, giving Spanish cycling a jolt of energy not felt since Iban Mayo pulled off a similar feat at L’Alpe d’Huez in 2003.
Valverde finished third in the 2003 Vuelta, but said he wanted to skip this year’s Spanish grand tour to focus on the world championships.
If his knee is feeling better, El Imbatido – “the unbeaten one” – might make it his very own three-week personal revenge tour.