I’ve always loved Brussels as a city but in the past two days I have come to realise that I was basing my opinion on my numerous trips from the train station to the Grand Palace and back. Driving around the back streets of the city has actually given me a higher opinion of the driving skills of the Italians I normally share the road with and I have to say it was a relief to pop back up near the Palace this morning after the run through the (slightly less than) clean streets.
Up close to the Tour, the city was putting on a great show and as we walked through the park on the way to the start village, I couldn’t help but think that the photo of these riders behind the fountain might be more representative of what was in store for the peloton later today.
In at the village, we were working on the theory that too much coffee is never enough and while propping up the bar we bumped into BMC owner Andy Rihs.
I asked him about his feelings on the team this year.
“We are in this game for one reason and one reason only: To sell more bikes. We are doing that and we are really really happy with Cadel and what he has done as the World Champion this year and are really looking forward to working more with him in the future.”
When I introduced Paul to him as a BMC dealer (“Tex” is a co-owner of the Bike Central shop back home in Tassie) the two hit it off like a house on fire. There were hats exchanged and lots of shop talk. Later in the morning as he was passing the BMC bus, Tex was dragged under the rope by Rihs to look at the new BMC machine that Evans and Hincapie rode for the first time in Sunday’s stage into Brussels.
The Veteran Speaks
Three time Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Museeuw was in Brussels for the start of the race. As a man who knows how to ride a bike over cobblestones and has also tasted success at the Tour de France in his day (two stage wins), I asked him what he thought about the combination of the Classics and Le Tour that would be played out over the next two days.
Museeuw with the kids of the Vlaamse Wielerschool at the start in Brussels.
“It’s going to be worse having the cobbles at the end in the final. It will mean everybody wants to be at the front and of course that’s impossible. I hope that we don’t have many crashes from the guys who do the GC. I’m not in favour of doing these types of stages in the Tour de France. OK now, it’s in. You can win and you can lose. Armstrong has a lot of experience, but Contador has nothing from experience. If he has bad luck he can lose the whole race. Ok, that’s the Tour de France, but I’m not in favour of having a small Paris Roubaix in the Tour de France.”
The Australian Perspective
When the route for the Tour de France was published last year, Aussie Scot Sunderland, at that point still assigning Team Sky with their preparations for their first Tour de France, said of these two days in the south of Belgium and the north of France, that it wasn’t possible to win the Tour here but it sure would be possible for some riders to lose the race.
Paul and I caught up with Scott last week in Belgium for a coffee and a chat and as we met up with him in the village, it seemed like a suitable time to quiz him on what he thought about the upcoming stages.
“Today, you’ve got the climbers, like Gerrans, Vino and Sanchez who can be right up there like a classic. But there are also the top GC riders. Coming in to the Stockeu it could be a little bit humid, then with the yellow jersey there and the guys who could win the stage along with the GC guys, you might have 25 riders up there at the front fighting for position. They need to be really on their toes. Anyone who is not attentive today in the last few kilometres could pay for that.”
“And for Tuesday it won’t be possible for everyone to be up front keeping out of trouble, so riders will have to take risks. It’s funny, riders were saying that they didn’t want to take risks in the prologue, but Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, if you don’t want to take risks in those stages, I don’t know what you are doing here at the Tour de France.”
Sunderland and Peiper catching up at the start. The ex-Aussie pros can sometimes be found out on their bikes together, solving the problems of the world on the roads of Flanders.
One Team who had a double dose of bad luck in yesterday’s stage into Brussels was the HTC Columbia squad. The bad luck started when Adam Hansen crashed early in the stage and broke his sternum and a rib. Of course, we found out about the extent of his injuries after he had remounted, chased back to the front, helped set up the sprint for Cavendish and then gone to hospital for x-rays.
We talked to team DS Alan Peiper: “To lose a guy like Adam Hansen is a bit of a blow. We planned his whole year around riding the Tour de France and taking the role of George Hincapie in preparing the sprint for Cav as third or fourth last man. We kept him out of the National championships and Tour Down Under specifically to prepare him for that and that was a big sacrifice for him. He was really, really ready for the Tour and then to break bones and be out of the Tour is a disaster for him.”
The second piece of misfortune was when Mark Cavendish crashed on the right hand bend at 2000m to go.
“We were disappointed in the team with yesterday, because when you kick off the Tour with a stage win, the pressure is off, both for Mark and the team. Bike riders are resilient and they’re used to the fact that they’ve got to just get on with it. We’ll adjust to the situation and move on.”
In terms of what caused the crash, Peiper said it was a combination of factors.
“Mark touched Bernie’s wheel and then laid it over, Renshaw’s back wheel was off the ground trying to stop. It was a dangerous corner and we communicated that to the riders but they have to wait and see what the others are doing too. As much as you can say take it easy in that corner, if the other guys are sprinting into it, you’ve got to sprint into it. You can’t just lose 20 places like that.”
One man who took a different approach to the final bend in Brussels and came out the other side in good position, was Robbie McEwen. The former green jersey winner decided to take it easy(er) through the bend which seemed to work.
“Before the Tour I checked it out on Google Earth to see what it looked like real life and we came down it really fast. At that moment I knew that they were not going to make it. I backed off so I could make it through the inside of the corner and sure enough the others shot through straight ahead and there were half a dozen guys on the ground and another 10 stopped in the crash. The eight places I lost by backing off, I made up 16 by taking the corner properly.”
As for Monday and Tuesday’s stages, McEwen’s short analysis was “two tough, tough stages.”
“The race will be very very difficult as everybody wants to be in the same place at the same time. Everyone wants to start the stones first. A lot of the action will be in the lead up to the first stones and that’s where the carnage will be. Once we get on the stones, there will probably be groups already and things will be a bit tame.”
Matt Lloyd made the break of the day but was unable to clinch the polka dot jersey, while Wes Sulzberger was in the crashes and came in four minutes off the pace.
Winners Are Grinners
The Lampre team have come to the Tour with both a sprinter and GC man and a team equally divided (in the numerical sense) between the interests of the two riders. With a win on Sunday thanks to Alessandro Petacchi, we caught up with two of the men who love spending time up north on the cobbles.
Mauro DaDalto is always up for a chat with Pez and was certainly looking relaxed by the team bus. I asked him if he was looking forward to the next few days of racing?
“Yes, of course. We have a good team for the sprint and with Petacchi riding well it means we can ride at a level a bit higher than normal. In the second week of the Tour we also have some stages of mixed terrain and we will also be looking for victory there, maybe in an escape”
“Today it’s a course more similar to Amstel so is more suited to Damiano than Petacchi. The final 100km will be nervous with the narrow roads. But it will always depend on which breaks go. Tuesday will be very difficult. There’s Cancellara and the course is very very difficult. I just hope the weather will be good for us.”
Mauro told us that tomorrow would be an a-typical day on the Tour as the is always a special atmosphere around the Tour de France but there would also be riders who had never ridden the cobblestones before. I asked him if there was anyone in the team who was worried about the stones.
“Yes, yes, Damiano is a little apprehensive for the stones because he has never ridden the stones like this and he knows it won’t be easy. We will see tomorrow. My role tomorrow will be to help make sure that Damiano saves as much as possible and then always looking out of “Peta” toward the finish to do what I can.”
Working for Petacchi and loving the stones is also the job of Mirco Lorenzetto. “I’ll just be taking things day by day and seeing what happens,” was his response when I put it to him that it was a good first week for a rider with his Classics experience.
The man whose job it is to bring home the wins and the jerseys after all of his team mates have done their thing.
“Yesterday I was at the front for the curve. We had studied the road book and then after I had made the turn the crash happened behind me. And then after that it was all done.”
A few drinks last night in the team?
“A few.” But I think the smile and the wink he gave said that there were more than just a few.
The GC Men
Over by the Saxo Bus, the SRAM team of Michael Zellman and Jason Phillips were busy accommodating requests from the press for pictures of the new yellow Specialized team bike, decked out in their Limited Tour Edition SRAM Red groupset.
With no riders around at this point, the machine of the yellow jersey wearer would have to do (insert cliched comment about no motor to be found).
Around the front of the bus, team boss Bjarne Riis was chatting to the media…
… and then eventually the man we had been waiting to see made his appearance.
Cancellara was looking fab in yellow but by the time he arrived in Spa, he would be handing it over to eventual stage winner Sylvain Chavanel.
By the end of today’s stage, there would be more battered bodies than most people were even expecting for Tuesday’s run across the cobbles. Lance Armstrong knows a thing or two about winning the Tour and his current form means that he is far from an ‘outside’ chance to win the race this year. Of course, like everyone else, he needs to get to Arenberg in one piece tomorrow.
Johan Bruyneel was talking to the Flemish press by the RadioShack bus and after he had explained that he felt SaxoBank, Rabobank, Quick Step and even Liquigas were the teams that would be the most threat to them in the race, I slipped in a question, asking how important he thought it was for Tuesday’s stage, that Armstrong had ridden the Tour of Flanders this year?
“I think the Tour of Flanders, for Lance, was important. To get the feel on the cobblestones, it’s a different type of racing and a different style of racing. But, the Tour de France is a different peloton, it’s not the classics specialists, so it is other people who are going to be riding in front. Also, the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders, you can in no way compare to the cobbles of we’re going to have tomorrow. But, still, in terms of getting the feel, testing some equipment, it was important.”
The man in question and his mobile crowd.
The arrival of Lance on the start line meant it was time for us to pack up camp and head to the finish. The riders had what would turn out to be a very wet and slippery 200km in the saddle and we were taking the shortcut to the press room to see them arrive in Spa.
In the end it was Sylvain Chavanel who made the most of the opportunities on offer for today. He was in the early break and attacked at the front while (not quite) everyone was falling off behind him.
The Quick Step rider made his way along Spa’s Avenue Reine Astrid, celebrating his win, unaware that behind him yellow jersey wearer Fabian Cancellara had taken the initiative to speak to Jean Franзois Pescheaux to neutralise the green jersey competition so there would be no sprint.
Having already stopped the chase of the breakaway to allow the GC contenders, (including but not limited to his Saxo Bank team mates The Schlecks), who had crashed to regain the front, Cancellara’s role in neutralising the sprint at the finish for second place wasn’t exactly welcomed by all of the riders in the race.
With Jurgen Roelandts having the possibility of taking the green jersey at the finish, Omega Pharma Lotto lost out on a day of publicity on home soil as the green went from Alessandro Petacchi to the overflowing wardrobe of Sylvain Chavanel of rival Belgian team, Quickstep.
Chavanel himself told the Belgian Sporza network last night that he too wasn’t happy that behind him, the riders had stopped racing. With the Frenchman going out and taking control of the race and winning on his merits, you can see his point of view when it now looks as though he only won because the others stopped chasing.
It will be interesting to see what happens on Tuesday if Contador crashes and is caught behind. Will there be the same interest in neutralising the race to make sure his GC chances aren’t ruined before the first week of the Tour de France is even completed?
I might be wrong, but I think not.
So that’s today’s “Mini Liege” done and you have heard what some of those in the know think about Le Tour’s “Mini Paris (well, Liege) – Roubaix” too. We’ll be out on course tomorrow to see them race past in what is hopefully (but unlikely to be) one piece.