Friday, July 13, 2007

Tour de France: Stage 6

Semur-en-Auxois to Bourg-en-Bresse 199.5 km

Stage 6, transition before the Alps. GNB Sports. Chow.

Thank the Gods, a flat stage after yesterday's crashes. The riders need it desperately to heal before the Alps. Many injuries however all but one rider started this morning. We're down to 183 riders with the abandon of Geoffroy Lequatre (COF) who limped in last night 44:04 minutes after the leader, covered in blood and well past the cutoff putting him in last place both for the day and overall for the Tour, the so-called "Red Lantern" position. The race jury allowed him to continue due to his "fighting spirt" but he was too beat up to continue this morning. After such courage on his ride yesterday.

Two category four climbs and three intermediate sprints today under a clear blue sky without clouds and no wind, already into the mid 80's. A beautiful day for riding. Bradley Wiggins (COF) broke clear all by himself just 2 km into the race. He's now 16:15 ahead of the main field with 122 km to go, and the field is leaving him alone to fry. Wiggins is low in the General Classification so he's not considered a threat to any of the top riders or teams. The reason riders no one has heard of go out on the break, strictly speaking, is for publicity. The longer they're out in front, the longer the camera shows their team colors to the world. Further more, the better the chance of them getting a better contract next year. And who knows... it's unlikely, but perhaps they might hang on and win the stage. It could happen.

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) and his teammate Andreas Kloden both spent time in the hospital overnight. Kloden has a broken coccyx while Vinokourov has bad wounds with multiple sutures on both knees and one elbow. We won't know how this impacts his chances of winning the Tour -- other than being 1:21 behind the Yellow Jersey -- till tomorrow when we get to the Alps and see if he can climb.

Almost time for the feeding zone. 183 riders slowing just slightly, trying to find their team colors out of the crowd of staff handing out food, grab their food bags and sling them across their body, all without crashing. Yesterday we had poor Geoffroy Lequatre go down right after the food station when someone dropped their food bag and it tangled his wheel. Who can forget Lance Armstrong on the climb to Luz Ardiden on Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour when his handlebars were entangled by the food bag of a fan and his bike was jerked straight to the ground? Lance had to climb desperately to get back up to where Jan Ulrich and the other leaders were waiting for him; Jan wasn't willing to win the stage or the Tour while Lance was down on a fall. Slow speed falls and food bags are dangerous as hell. And now Lequatre is out of the Tour from his fall yesterday. This is a dangerous moment we're approaching. But if you don't eat, you can't ride. Except for the time trial, no rider has enough endurance to make it through a stage without taking on food and fluids.

The maximum advantage Wiggins had was 17:30 back 57 km in to the stage. Now Wiggins has only 9 minutes with 105 km to go as the field slowly brings him back over the long straight roads. The peloton is passing through the feeding zone being very careful after yesterday's incidents. No one wants to go down. And...

CRASH. Enrico Degano is down, the sprinter. He's staying down, holding himself in obvious pain. This is going to be a problem for Robbie Hunter: Degano is Robbie's lead out man. The problem with low speed crashes is people get hurt. You're going so slow, you put your hands out to try and break your fall and wham, bones break. At high speeds you roll and roll, skin tears, road rash scrapes your shorts and skin off. You might need sutures, but with massage and rest you're right back on the bike come morning. You can't ride with a busted collar-bone or broken wrists. Low speed crashes are the worst.

Wiggins has 8:02 on the field with 98 km to go. The peloton is tired. It feels hot and the peloton has slowed a bit as it passes through a town. Tomorrow is no doubt in some people's minds with its massive category-1 stage near the end. The people who thought today would give them time to recover from yesterday... not so much.

Timing of riders: Look closely at the bicycles: about one foot behind the rider's left foot hanging down from the chainstay is a small rectangular yellow box -- a GPS timing transponder. It allows the Tour organization to track each cyclist's location and time, including time splits on breakaways and time trials, and start/finish times, down to the 100th of a second. In addition, multiple high-speed video cameras from different directions allow for photo finishes. Spare bikes don't have transponders. Race officials take note when riders change bikes and track those riders at the finish by hand, or if necessary after-the-fact by video and their rider number.

Race radio just reported that Enrico Degano who crashed at the feed has abandoned by ambulance to the hospital to be looked at. The Tour is now down to 182 riders. It's an awful shame we think; he trained so hard, this is his first Tour and to be taken out by a stupid fall at the feeding station. Seven teams of the 21 have now lost one man each. You need all your men especially as you get into the harder sections of the race, and we've not come anywhere near the hard part of the Tour yet.

Wiggins is 5:50 min away, 81 km to go, the peloton eating into his advantage with every pedal stroke and they've not even started chasing. If the peloton keeps chasing at this speed and Wiggins doesn't change his speed, he'll be caught at 40 km to go.

Andreas Kloden has slipped off the back of the peloton and has one rider from his team pacing him back. Remember he was reported as having a damaged or broken coccyx (that's his tailbone.) He hadn't looked as if he was in serious trouble, but only he knows how badly he's truly hurt. He's being paced, paced some more, and now they're back to the rear of the peloton, Kloden stretching his back in obvious pain.

Today is the 40th anniversary of Tom Simpson's fatal heart-attack climbing the slopes of the Ventoux during Stage 13 of the 1967 Tour. I urge you to read John Wilcockson's piece on the death of Tom Simpson. Highly recommended.

Degano had a broken collar-bone. Dammit. Thank you race radio. A broken collar-bone is the most common major cycling injury, followed closely by broken wrists. It used to be worse. Professional riders used to ride without helmets. In fact, the Union Cycliste Internationale mandates helmets for all Tour riders. This has only happened in the last few years. As recently as a few years ago Tour riders were allowed to ride up climbs without their helmet and before that helmets were optional for pro riders. In 1995 on Stage 15 of the Tour, Fabio Casartelli was killed descending the Col De Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees when he fell on a steep curve at nearly 55 mph and his head hit a concrete block. He was not wearing a helmet. Even then, UCI refused to mandate helmets, but today UCI rules require helmets in every race always. Broken collar-bones and wrists heal; broken brains, don't. Wear your helmet. Make your children and teenagers wear helmets. Set an example. This has been a Public Service announcement.

The race is beautiful. A long thin line of racers, carving a waving high-speed line mostly single-file in each other's slip-stream down back-roads through the heart of the lush French vineyards. Wiggins is still 5 min ahead with 55 km to go and Wiggins is tired. He's been leading the race for 140 km. While he's a brilliant breakaway artist, can he keep this up all the way to the finish? The peloton will need to make a mistake for Wiggins to survive to the finish. Plus he's losing an enormous amount of energy which he simply can't recover and tomorrow we start three days in the Alps. The payoff of course is Team Cofidis has been on the television screens of the world for most of the last two hours. Oops... Wiggins has flatted and is getting a quick change; 15 seconds tops and he's back in the saddle and rolling. Damn, wouldn't it be nice to have a mechanic following us when we ride!

The field continues to pull the breakaway back. Down to 3:41 now, with 42 km to go. We have a suggestion to make dear readers. Watch the Tour video highlights. Short, to the point, well labeled. Watch the ones you're interested in; ignore the rest. Also note that tomorrow's (Saturday's) television coverage starts one hour earlier: 7:30 - 11:30 AM ET/4:30 - 8:30 AM PT. Four great hours of live coverage on Versus for our first day in the Alps. If you haven't hauled yourself up to actually watch the Tour LIVE yet, consider watching tomorrow, and make certain you watch LIVE Sunday.

The chase is on full-out, only 1:42 back with 30.5 km to go. Wiggins will be awarded the Most Aggressive Rider for certain tomorrow, wearing the red number on his jersey. There's been no other aggressive riders today at all. But the peloton simply needs to shave off 30 seconds per 10 km and they own him and they're going much faster than that.

There's two or three nasty traffic circles in the last few kilometers, then a slight bend followed by a slight climb over the last several hundred meters. Robbie Hunter wants very badly to win today and he's probably the fastest man in the world in the last 50 meters if he can get positioned properly. The question is how is Robbie feeling and can he get in place with his lead out man Enrico Degano in the hospital from the earlier incident today at the feed station?

All the vehicles are out of the 76 second gap, 25 km to go. They're simply letting Wiggins hang. No need to pull him back now; the field owns him. Taking him now would only encourage attacks. Let him suffer. Yes -- this is rather mean, but this is bicycle racing, not bicycle riding on Sunday with your family and oh my, aren't the flowers lovely? It's to no one's advantage to complete the capture, not even Higgins. Cofidis continues to get publicity for his solo breakaway, so he rides on. And on and on.

More on the finish. It is long, straight, and could be very very fast. It will seem like it lasts forever. If organized properly, the team hoping to win will need three or four men in front with 2 km to go and the last man pulling off with 150 - 200 meters left, then the final sprinter kicking all out for the final distance. Just watch out for the round-a-bouts coming in to the long finishing straight and that final bend just before the slight uphill finish.

Finally the peloton is coming after Wiggins. Down from 1:45 seconds 2 minutes ago, to 1:15 right now at 16 km to go. And through a round-a-bout, heat rates at 160-180 beats a minute. The peloton paying attention, no one wants to touch wheels, no silly falls, the long flat wide roads a sprinters delight. Under the 15 km banner for Wiggins and oh he's hurting, you can see his face and time is against him. The field continues to pull him back. He's been out since 2 km from the start of the stage, truly a great ride but all for naught, he's going to be captured in the next five minutes; down to 43 seconds. He wanted so badly to win in London but he's become famous on the roads of France today.

Just 24 seconds, Wiggins looking back over his shoulder but isn't giving up. Wiggins keeps going and the peloton still hanging back, waiting, 22 seconds back with 10 km to go. Bradley Wiggins has done a magnificent job but is dangling like a mouse in front of 181 cats waiting to pounce. "Why don't they come finish me off?" Eighteen seconds ahead and the boys in blue of Tom Boonen's Quickstep are trying to organize on the front. Still 10 seconds ahead for Wiggins with 8 km to go and the sprinters' teams are all now trying to organize. Drinking bottles fly off in arcs to the side by the tens and twenties, trying to shed even half a pound counts when you're setting up a 50 mph sprint to the line. Now eight seconds ahead and 7 km. And finally, Wiggins is captured. Take a bow, Bradley.

The entire field together 6.4 km from the line rides almost in slow motion. Alexander Vinokourov is completely patched up with bandages everywhere. He looks like a mummy who has been hit with a baseball bat. This is a proud rider, a great rider and this year is probably his best chance to win the Tour. He's really hurt badly and he's been suffering all day both knees covered in stitches, one elbow, and his hands absolutely ripped up. The hard truth is, Vinokourov is 33 and he may not have many opportunities as good as this to win. Either he guts it out and rides up into the Alps tomorrow into history, or he retires tonight. Ride or die Vino. You can do it.

Now the pace picks up; Tom Boonen's Quickstep picks up the pace to 50 kmh but there's no organization to speak of, the riders are tired with just 5 km to go. Wiggins is too tired to keep up and drops behind into the caravan. He'll ride in before the time cutoff, no problem. The peloton remains fairly slow with no one controlling the pace. T-Mobile is trying to get to the front. Erik Zabel is near the front around 8th. The problem with the slow speed is ordinary riders think they have a shot at a stage win and will take risks, thinking they can duck past the sprinters and that's when you have accidents.

Now the pace is picking up at 3 km to go, Quickstep picking up the pace, Thor Hushovd up front and so is Erik Zabel bobbing in and out with Tom Boonen dead center. Robbie McEwen loves chaos and this is a very chaotic sprint. McEwen is searching for the wheel of Erik Zabel and Boonen with 2 km to go and the riders are zig zagging about still looking for anyone to follow, still no organization up front. Zabel's too far to the front, Boonen stuck in the middle looking for a way out, completely boxed in. Now coming in to the home stretch running for the line, McEwen is 8 men back and coming around the final bend. Julian Dean has the front and is pouring it on. Hunter is coming through and going faster. Boonen is now coming through in a full free for all. In a final dig for the line it's Boonen right on the line and it's Boonen at last!

Tom Boonen's been wanting this win for days. He's back in green tonight on guts, courage and the desire to win. He's been very consistent and has his stage win which is almost a full bicycle length over Oscar Freire in second. Congratulations Tom Boonen who is back in the Green Jersey and that is what he really wanted.

Tomorrow morning is an early start as we spend the first of three days in the Alps. Wake up early and watch the early battle for the Yellow Jersey. Thanks for hanging with us today. This has been GNB Sports. See you tomorrow.

Stage 7 LIVE in the U.S. on Versus: EARLY START: Saturday, July 14, 7:30 - 11:30 AM ET/4:30 - 8:30 AM PT.

Today's video highlights -- Great Tour coverage at VeloNews

TDF Stage 6 Results -- Top 10:
The 2005 world champion has won his first stage since the 2005 Tour de France. The top 10 in Bourg-en-Bresse is:
1. Tom Boonen (BEL) QSI - 199.5km in 5h20'59" (37.291km/h)
2. Oscar Freire (ESP) RAB
3. Erik Zabel (GER) MRM
4. Sebastian Chavanel (FRA) FDJ
5. Thor Hushovd (NOR) C.A
6. Daniele Bennati (ITA) LAM
7. Robert Forster (GER) GST
8. Robert Hunter (RSA) BAR
9. Romain Feillu (FRA) AGR
10. Murilo Fischer (BRA) LIQ

TDF: Standings after Stage 6
1 033 CANCELLARA, Fabian SUI CSC 29:49:55.000 00:00:00.000
2 196 KLÖDEN, Andréas GER AST 29:50:28.000 00:00:33.000
3 151 POZZATO, Filippo ITA LIQ 29:50:30.000 00:00:35.000
4 201 MILLAR, David GBR SDV 29:50:36.000 00:00:41.000
5 056 FREIRE, Oscar ESP RAB 29:50:38.000 00:00:43.000
6 114 HINCAPIE, George USA DSC 29:50:38.000 00:00:43.000
7 113 GUSEV, Vladimir RUS DSC 29:50:40.000 00:00:45.000
8 015 KARPETS, Vladimir RUS GCE 29:50:41.000 00:00:46.000
9 181 ZABEL, Erik GER MRM 29:50:43.000 00:00:48.000
ASTARLOZA, Mikel ESP EUS 29:50:44.000 00:00:49.000