Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tour de France: Stage 4

Villers-Cotterets to Joigny 193 km

Wednesday morning. Stage 4. GNB Sports. Bonjour.

A short stage this morning, roughly the distance from Tucson to Phoenix. There are three sprints today, four category-4 climbs and lots of short hills which don't get categorized, but will make it tough on the sprinters to chase down a breakaway which gets a long way ahead. Our finish town, Joigny, in the over 100 years of the Tour, has never hosted either a start or finish of the Tour, so tonight is a big deal for Joigny.

A 5 man breakaway been out since 31.5 km, Flecha (RAB), Verdugo (EUS), Sprick (BTL), Chavanel (FDJ) who is only 23rd ranked overall just 56 seconds behind Cancellara (CSC), and Knees (MIL). At 100 km they're out 3:35 min ahead of the peloton. CSC is out in front of the peloton, protecting Cancellara, because Sylvian Chavanel is currently the virtual leader of the Tour on the road, and CSC, charged with protecting the actual Yellow Jersey, isn't going to let this break far out of their sights.

We lost one rider already today. Xabier Zandio (SP) broke his collar-bone in a crash at 63 km and had to abandon, leaving 186 riders on the road. Xabier was also in the pile-up on Stage 1 and is a beloved and talented cyclist who will be missed, especially in the mountains.

Questions we thought already covered: Christophe Moreau who certainly should have known better, was fined 100CHF (Swiss Franks) yesterday for "improperly relieving himself." Once again, taking a "natural break" should occur in the country side, perhaps in a big field of flowers with animals singing and birds flying about one's head, not inside the neutral zone prior to the race starting inside a town, which is where Christophe is alleged to have whipped it out. For this family-unfriendly act which GNB Sports is happy not to have seen, Moreau is quite properly fined. How much is 100CHF is US dollars? Must we do everything? As of yesterday's gold fix in the London market (which is where gold prices are fixed [we are an endless source of new learning here at GNB Sports], 100CNF = $83.23USD. And there you have it. *sighs* Ok, fine... Why is the 100CSF fine set in Swiss Franks? Because the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is a Swiss organization. Top bicycling races are held under UCI auspices no matter where the race is held, France, Italy, even the United States. Fines are set in the currency of the UCI. Satisfied now?

After the final sprint points of the day, 65 km to go and the break is still 3:45 min out. None of the main General Classification contenders have shown their hand yet. They've been content to sit back and let CSC take the job of working to keep Cancellara in Yellow which admittedly is their job. However remember, the Tour isn't won in the flats unless someone makes a massive mistake or gets caught up in or behind a crash. The Tour is won almost always in the mountains, and occasionally in the time trials. The time trials this year are stages 13 and 19.

The finish today is long, straight, and very fast with a little left-hand chicane with 200 meters to go. A perfect sprinters' finish. Assuming the peloton hauls the break back, there should be a terrific grand race for the line. The break is 3 min out at 60 km, the riders are going 32 km per hour.

Coming up before the last two climbs of the day, it's a long straight road. The peloton is confident and catching up quickly. They can see the helicopter hovering just behind the leading group, and what they can see, they can catch. In just ten km, they pull a full minute back and at 50.7 km it's 1:55 min. No one wants to wait till the last minute as they have the last two days; it doesn't allow the sprinters time to set up properly. Under normal circumstances the peloton can drag 1 minute back per 10 km.

Paging Fabian Cancellara's suitcase. The Yellow Jersey holder's luggage is still lost after traveling from Switzerland to London last week. He says he doesn't mind: "It hasn't turned up, but that means I have more room on the bus for all these yellow jerseys I am collecting." Heh.

CRASH! Three riders down... no, four. Ouch. Lots of bleeding by one of them. The peloton has gone on ahead naturally. No one waits for anyone in the Tour de France. One rider looks as if he has run off the road into the side of a car. Two riders are already back riding. One is still down, holding his face covered in blood, the other is up trying to fix his bicycle. Well, we hope they're okay.

On the next-to-last climb of the day, a race to the top. Stephan Auge will keep his King of the Mountains jersey with a total of 9 points. David Millar has 8. With 38.5 km to go, the peloton is is 1:38 behind, so the field can pull them back anytime they want. They'll likely let them hang out a little while longer.

Update on the crash. Everyone's up and back to the peloton. All riders are ok. Well, that's a relief. Race radio is reporting one of the riders needs some sutures, but that will have to wait till after the finish. For now, some bandages from the Tour doctor from the car while riding.

The last sprint of the day is done as are all the categorized climbs. Now nothing left except the ride to the finish. We'll be glad when the Tour gets to the mountains. There's something to the flats and clearly the Tour needs the flats to warm-up before heading upwards. But the glory of bicycling lies in endurance and suffering, something which happens best when climbing till your legs fall off, your lungs gasp for oxygen, and your entire body is a lactic acid cramp and all you want to do is scream but you can't spare the oxygen debt. That's cycling and it happens when you climb. *smiles* Well, we'll get to the Alps soon enough.

The gap down to 67 seconds, 27 km to go as we break out of the forest. The speed is increasing and the riders are about to be spotted by the peloton. All the cars are about to be pulled out of the gap which is a massive blow to the morale of the breakaway, telling them, suckers, it's over. The only cars left are the race referee and one neutral service car, whose job it is to service any rider needing help. If push comes to shove, they'll put you on a whole new bike, but not with bike cleats, as they can't know what kind of clips you are wearing on your road shoes. The neutral service bicycles all have pedals with traps to stick your shoes in. Those traps are death traps; you can't get your feet out quickly in an emergency, but if you need a bike, you need a bike.

The break is still 50 sec up, with only 14.5 km to go. The peloton simply hasn't been able to haul them down, the break experienced Tour veterans all. The peloton has to be wondering if they're going to be in trouble with the sprinters yet again. The break gets caught almost every time, but after a day away, the natural inclination is to cheer for the break to pull off a miracle. "Yeah, in your face peloton. Take that." Probably not going to happen today, but you don't ever quite know.

Finally, here comes the capture. Under the 10 km sign, we're 20 seconds back and the break is fully in sight. They're about to sit up and let the capture happen. But wait, they're giving it a shot. Three are racing out ahead, two have been swept up and are captured, vanishing without a trace into the peloton. Three still ten seconds ahead but they have no chance. Now down to eight seconds. Just two left with one captured. The field is waiting to pounce on the last two just eight seconds back, letting them work and suffer all along just two riders. The last two riders shake hands, and let themselves be captured, and that's it. The breakaway is over. Good work everyone.

And now the race to the finish starts. The acceleration picks up immediately with 6.3 km to go, the peloton strung out in a long ride, at 60 km an hour (38 mph). This is the first true sprinters' stage of the race. The reason they're keeping the pace up at a high level is to stop attacks coming off the front of the race. The peloton is fully strung off, and the acceleration is picking up even faster, the sprinters working to get organized as we come under the 5 km banner, no one yet in complete control.

Erik Zabal and Tom Boonen are up front at 4 km to go, as is Robbie. The train is starting to form. 3.4 km to go and riders are falling off to the side, spent, their work for the day done. You can only hold this pace so long out front and then you're toast. 2 km to go and T-Mobile is in front. It's a total free-for-all. Now it's Quickstep. Here we go lining up for the end with 550 meters and heading in to the end, taking the little bend at 200 m without pausing, Dean, Hunter, Robbie Hunter sprinting in, and Thor Hushovd hits the line with a perfect lead out and that's all she wrote.

Beautiful stage ending. Kiwi National Champion Julian Dean gives a beautiful lead out to Norwegian Thor Hushovd, and Hushovd gets a big, big win as a result, his fifth Tour win.

Stage Five is viewable LIVE in the United States on Versus, Thursday, July 12, 8:30 - 11:30 AM ET/5:30 - 8:30 AM PT.

Here are video highlights from today. More great Tour coverage at VeloNews.

TDF Stage 4 Results -- Top 10:
1. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole, 193 km in 4:37:47
2. Robert Hunter (RSA), Barloworld
3. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank
4. Erik Zabel (G), Milram
5. Danilo Napolitano (I), Lampre-Fondital
6. Gert Steegmans (B), Quick Step-Innergetic
7.Robert Forster (G), Gerolsteiner
8.Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic
9. Sebastian Chavanel (F) Francaise des Jeux
10. Mark Cavendish (GB), T-Mobile, all s.t.

TDF: Standings after Stage 4
1 033 CANCELLARA, Fabian SUI CSC 19:49:55.000 00:00:00.000
2 101 HUSHOVD, Thor NOR C.A 19:50:24.000 00:00:29.000
3 196 KLÖDEN, Andréas GER AST 19:50:28.000 00:00:33.000
4 201 MILLAR, David GBR SDV 19:50:36.000 00:00:41.000
5 114 HINCAPIE, George USA DSC 19:50:38.000 00:00:43.000
6 149 WIGGINS, Bradley GBR COF 19:50:38.000 00:00:43.000
7 141 CHAVANEL, Sylvain FRA COF 19:50:39.000 00:00:44.000
8 113 GUSEV, Vladimir RUS DSC 19:50:40.000 00:00:45.000
9 171 BOONEN, Tom BEL QSI 19:50:41.000 00:00:46.000
10 015
KARPETS, Vladimir RUS GCE 19:50:41.000 00:00:46.000

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