It’s the longest day of the Tour, clocking in at over 230km, and the riders are leaving Belgium and crossing back into France, traversing some of the fabled roads of Paris Roubaix. It’s a typical week one stage, mostly flat with one bump on the course. Would there be fireworks? Would it be piano? Who’s going to cause today’s crash?
Stage 3 – Tuesday, July 10: Waregem – Compiиgne, 236.5km
After the riders clicked in and the peloton was happy with who was away, they watched the backsides of Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel) and Mathieu Ladagnous (Franзaise des Jeux) gain upwards of 14 minutes, as behind injuries from yesterday’s horrific crash were nursed and legs rested. It was clear it was to be a piano day from the start, well, at least until the break got the hook put in its mouth and taken back into the boat.
With 120km to go, the peloton touched the gas pedal like a grandma, and started to slowly chip away at the lead, cutting it to under 5 minutes without very much effort at all. The excitement came from roadside spectacles and the occasional flat, as the group laid like Jabba the Hutt across the road, thick and fat and inching along. If the break slowed, so did the group. If the break sped up, so did the group. It was clear that the break would be given its last rites in time for the sprinters teams to set up a proper group of trains and avoid the pile ups of yesterday. Until then, it was all freewheeling at the back of the pack, as jokesters like Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) spent time “flicking”(the annoying kind with your finger to the ear or back of the head, not the sort that ends up with someone in the gutter) the likes of yellow jersey wearer Fabian Cancellara. With 85km to go, the group was an hour behind schedule. Like we said, piano!
Vogondy and Ladagnous went for the loooooong break today. I mean, really really long break – 230 km.
With 60km left, Stephan Auge (Cofidis) and Frederick Willems (Liquigas) jumped away in a bid to bridge to the two up front, and the peloton’s indifference let them get a sizable gap with little effort. The duo became a quartet at 51km to go, and they quickly began to work together in a desperate bid to escape the trolling monster behind at 2+ minutes. Saunier Duval and CSC took turns keeping the gap just close enough. Duval sensed a bit late that David Millar’s KOM jersey was suddenly in jeopardy.
At the same time, stage 2 winner Gert Steegmans ran afoul of a thinning road and had a little tumble with Botcharov (Credit Agricole) at the back as the pace started to hot up in earnest. The four up front went knives out to extend their lead to over 3 minutes with 40 km to go.
Auge fought hard up the lone Cat 4 climb to grab enough points to relieve Saunier Duval’s David Millar of the polka dot jersey with 33km to go, and 3.30 in hand. At this point, the riders had been in the saddle for over almost an astonishing seven hours.
CSC did the early ‘tempo’ setting before the sprinter teams took over, but CSC was the profiting team in the end.
It might have been the drone of seemingly endless riding that lulled the group to sleep, as the four up front had their teeth in it in an all or nothing move. The peloton realized its mistake a bit late, as all hands went on deck to help reel in the escapees. If not timed right, the bunch would be racing for fifth.
Ahead, the finishing bits of the race were laced with cobbles and turns, right before the 1k to go red kite. It was to be a very dangerous finish. At 15km to go, the leader’s advantage was scalped to inside two minutes. Then the razor cut it down to just over 1:20, so Willems (Liquigas) made the first jump, which served more as a reminder to keep the temp high as it was an attack, as he was reeled in immediately and the 4 worked together again.
Inside of 4km, the gap was down to half a minute. In Paul Sherwen’s math, they’d be caught at 1 to go, but the leaders kept digging. Willems made another dash, again marked by his break mate Vogondy, leaving Auge and Ladagnous to struggle to catch up.
Is that? Wait, seriously? Fabian Cancellara made the spectacular one in a hundred move, and had the legs to make it happen.
The stage was set for a thrilling catch in the final meters of the stage, who was going to take it? McEwen, Boonen, Steegmans, Hushovd? The suspense was a welcome emotion after the doldrums of a senselessly long stage, but then something peculiar happened…and it wasn’t a crash.
Sure, he was pretty happy with that one.
Out of the final chicane, it was a sight not often seen in cycling: the Maillot Jaune, Fabian Cancellara himself, did the final hard yards and not only caught the four breakaway riders at 300m to go, but went right on through, put his head down, and nailed it to the line, just meters in front of the likes of Boonen and McEwen who were scampering for clean lines within a breath of the CSC rider, but to no avail. An utterly amazing finale provided by the Yellow Jersey himself.
Of interesting note – Erik Zabel led the group home for 2nd. Oh the sadness for Zabel. If it weren’t for an ‘over-achieving’ Cancellara, he’d have had a very rare stage win, but alas, no luck for the elder German.
That’s a handy way to increase the GC lead as well – he’s got 33 seconds on Kloeden now.
Tomorrow will see the riders plunge deeper into France and the rolling hills of the Champagne region, covering 193km to Joigny.
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC
2 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
3 Danilo Napolitano (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
4 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep-Innergetic
5 Robert Hunter (RSA) Barloworld
6 Robert Fцrster (Ger) Gerolsteiner
7 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Predictor-Lotto
8 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) T-Mobile
9 Mark Cavendish (GBr) T-Mobile
10 Heinrich Haussler (Ger) Gerolsteiner