Monday, July 31, 2006

Stage 20 - Sunday, July 23: Antony (Parc de Sceaux) - Paris Champs-Elysées, 154.5 km

I’ve put this off for long enough. Today’s the last day of July and the Tour has been over for over a week. A lot has happened, but I’m not going to address any of it. Instead I’m going to talk about my impressions and what hopefully will remain as the final standings.

The 2006 Tour de France started as it began, with Thor Hushovd crossing the line for an unexpected and very dramatic win. During the prologue he beat George Hincapie in the opening time trial-like stage. This time Hushovd outsprinted the top sprinter at the Tour, Robbie McEwen. Though Thor didn’t walk away with the green jersey, he bested McEwen by being the strongest in the sprint.

Though that wasn’t my deal result – I’d have liked Sylvain Chavanel or Philippe Gilbert to have won – it was pretty damn awesome. How did we get there, though? Through an exciting stage. It started, as all final stages do, with celebrations and joy. Eventually the attacks began and it looked, for quite a bit, like a break would take away the sprinting excitement. I was pretty pleased because Gilbert was in the break. But, as usual, it was not to be.

And unlike the drama of the final stage last year, where Vino took the dramatic stage win, nothing of the sort would happen this year. Instead it was a bunch sprint with Hushovd ending up on top. It was exciting and a fitting end to a rather different Tour.

The stage, by itself, was nothing overly special, but it was a lot of fun. Paul and Phil commented quite a few times on the fact that the cyclists seemed to be having the most fun they’d had in years. Probably because the winner was new and the top three were partly a surprise. But also because they could really relax and have fun. It was hilarious to watch.

The final podium, of course, was made up of Landis, Kloden and Pereiro (much to my delight, of course). I don’t know what will happen next year, but if things work out the way I hope, perhaps we’ll see Landis again. I’d like to see Kloden and Pereiro competing, but I don’t think Pereiro will be that lucky. He’ll be working for Valverde as long as he can. After all, no one expected Pereiro to even content. But there he is, second over all. Pretty awesome.

Before I get to the final jersey wearers, I’d like to mention the boy who ended up being winning the most aggressive rider of the Tour. His name? David De La Fuente. The Saunier Duval rider proved himself stage after stage, and although he didn’t remain in the KOM jersey, he did win most aggressive. And he deserved it. I’m quite proud of him.

Now onto the jerseys. In yellow, of course, was Landis. Followed by Michael Rasmussen as King of Mountains for the second year in a row. He did a great job, though poor De La Fuente had just run out of gas. In the green jersey, of course, was Robbie McEwen. I believe it’s his third time in green. He’ll never come close to the great Erik Zabel, but it’s a good showing – especially for Australia. And another surprise – the white jersey. Markus Fothen had worn the white jersey for most of the Tour, but not on the final stage. Though he’d often repeated that his goal was to work for his team leaders, it was clear that he’d wanted that white jersey. Sadly, it was not to be. And much to my pleasant surprise, it was the young Damiano Cunego who donned the white jersey on the final podium. After a dismal 2005 season due to illness, it’s nice to see Cunego finally reaching good form again. He won’t be back in ’07, but he will in ’08. And I really can’t wait at all.

All in all it was a good and exciting Tour. I loved every minute of it – all the lows and the highs. The doping is another matter and I might address it later – more than I have already. But we’ll just have to wait and see. I hope that things work out and the podium stands as is. If not, there’ll be a lot to talk about in the off season.

See you next year!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Stage 19 - Saturday, July 22: Le Creusot - Montceau-les-Mines ITT, 57 km

The time trial.

It was the deciding stage. Could Floyd Landis win the stage and take the yellow jersey? Was the yellow jersey magic enough for Oscar Pereiro? Could Carlos Sastre prove everyone wrong and do the time trial of his life? Would the GC change at all? Would Honchar win the stage again? Would the white jersey return to Markus Fothen? And, most importantly, how would Sylvain Chavanel do?

The answer to the last question is 16th. But I'm the only one who cares. As for the white jersey? Damiano Cunego rode the time trial of his life (and basically said as much) and managed to be Fothen by over a minute. It was pretty awesome. And now Cunego will ride into Paris wearing the white jersey. If it couldn't be one of my little FDJ riders, Cunego is as good (and better) than others. Perhaps one day he'll win the whole tour. I wouldn't mind watching that.

Now, for the stage. It was Honchar who did manage to pull off a spectacular win. He was 41 seconds faster than the second place rider and something like 16 minutes off of poor Robert Hunter, who sadly was outside the time limit. So, just as on the first time trial (ignoring the prologu), Honchar took the win. But he didn't steal the show. No, that was left for the yellow jersey competition.

Cadel Evans, an excellent time trialiest, was expected to do quite well on the stage. But he finished 8th and that's a good sign of how the stage went. It was Andreas Klöden who finished second. Yes, Klöden of the team without tactics (have they ever had them, really?). Not only did he ride a ITT of his life, but he caught and passed Evans on the road (right before the finish). He also did something extraordinary and rode himself into third place on the GC.

And that brings us to Carlos Sastre. He did the unexpected and ended up in second place on the general classification. He was the only rider able to strongly chase Landis on that stage 17. And he came so close. But unlike Landis and Klöden and even Pereiro, Sastre is not a strong time trial rider. And it showed. He blew up on the stage, as they say. He finished over four minutes back and thus slipped into fourth place.

While that was happening, Oscar Pereiro and Floyd Landis were fighting for the yellow jersey. Pereiro gave everything and in the end finished only 59 seconds behind Landis in the GC. And yes, it was Landis who took the yellow jersey. Against the odds and probably against the wishes of most people watching (excluding Americans). And so, for eight years in a row, an American is wearing the yellow jersey into Paris. At least it isn't Armstrong. For me it's weird, because I like Landis a lot and have had to defend him to my friends (they're mostly European) who don't like him. And here was me, defending an American cyclist after so often feeling the same way they do about Armstrong.

I was sad, though, that Pereiro lost the jersey. I've turned into a big fan of his. I definitely enjoyed watching him, but luckily he ended up in second place -- probably to his surprise and everyone else's. Especially because Pereiro's team leader (Valverde) crashed out of the race quite early .

The time trial summed up nicely what as been a pretty awesome and very weird tour. The final stage is mostly a formality in many respects and then it's an all out fight for the line. I can't wait.

And next year? It starts in the UK and I hope the tour is even more exciting than this year's.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Stage 18 - Friday, July 21: Morzine - Mâcon, 197 km

It was a not-flat flat stage. As in possibly good for sprinters but very good for a breakaway. And, of course, there was a break. In that break, among others, was Levi Leipheimer, trying yet again for a win. Much to his team's chagrin, he didn't manage the win. Neither did his teammate, Ronny Scholz, although third place isn't that bad. I actually just finished watching the stage and it's taken me almost an hour longer to watch it than the cyclists were on the road (phone calls and Dell service person coming to fix my computer does that).

It was not, as everyone will tell you, an important stage. Unless, of course, you're racing it and you want to win. There were a lot of teams in the break who hadn't won stages and wanted to win. So really this was a day for the big names and others who want to do well tomorrow to rest. And for the rest? It was a day to try and get that last win for your team.

Sadly, Saunier Duval missed the break and thus spent most of the stage chasing it down. The speculation is that this was punishment for missing the break, but who knows. They never did catch them, but it wasn't that big a deal. There was one incident when Robbie McEwen road off the front of the peloton in what people first thought was some strange breakaway attempt. Of course it wasn't (this is McEwen we're talking about) and he was just off to yell at the motorbike who he thought (and he was probably right) was pacing Saunier Duval as they attempted to catch the break.

Other than that, it was a mostly uneventful stage. But it was hard and hot. Both the peloton and the break were really riding fast -- probably because the sooner the stage is over, the sooner they can rest up for tomorrow (and the sooner the end of the race will be).

It was the break that decided the action on the stage. Sylvain Calzati attacked first, follow later but Leipheimer and others. But it wasn't until Cristian Moreni attacked that anything happened. The break never caught him, but Matteo Tosatto and Ronny Scholz did. Scholz tried hard to win the stage for Gerolsteiner, but failed. He ended up dragging both Moreni and Tosatto for several kilometers. But it was Tosatto who beat Cofidis' Moreni to the line. And, in winning, he won Quick Step's first stage of this Tour. Surprising since Tom Boonen had started (though did not finish) this year's tour. It was nice redemption after losing so many other sprint finishes.

The remaining breakaway riders trickled in, followed by a charging peloton. It was fight for the few remaining points -- though McEwen was not involved. Probably because he's leading by something like 84 points. Eight minutes after Tosatto finished, Bernhard Eisel was the first to the line, followed by Luca Paolini and Erik Zabel.

Of course, what everyone was talking about (instead of the stage that was being raced) was the time trial. It'll happen tomorrow and we should know the winner of the tour by the time it's over. It'll be exciting and I can't wait.

Stage 17 - Thursday, July 20: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne- Morzine, 200.5 km

Stage 17 was not going to be a routine stage, but I don't think anyone (not matter what they say after the stage) expected it to shake up the GC as much as it did. Long before I woke up (which was about 7:50 due to my inability so set my alarm -- so I missed most of the pre-race show) there were breaks that were eventually successful. But, in the end, that's not necessarily the story.

Of course, Philippe Gilbert was in the break and I always want him to win. But it was not to be. In fact, it was not a day for the breakaway to last. But the break was there, working away. There were no contenders in the group and that was that. But then, much to everyone's surprise (except for Phonak), Landis' team road at the front of the peloton and basically launched him off the front.

Everyone knew he wanted a stage, because that was the least he could managed after losing the yellow jersey (and the race) in such a spectacular fashion. Off he went and when we started our live coverage at about 8 am, he was maybe three minutes off the front of the peloton. And he kept riding and riding. And then some more. And then suddenly he was in the breakaway. Most likely they were all completely surprised because really, Landis?

Landis rode with them, doing work. He pushed the break to its limits, spilling them up. Much to my chagrin, Gilbert couldn’t hang on. Eventually all the riders except for T-Mobile’s Patrik Sinkewitz were dropped, unable to keep up the pace. Landis rode on, dragging Sinkewitz with him. The T-Mobile rider was of course unable to do any work. I’m sure he had instructions to sit on Landis and try to slow him down.

What no one realized, not even the commentators, was the there was no slowing Landis down. He pulled Sinkewitz with little effort (so to speak) and eventually dropped him as well. He went on alone and behind him? No one was chasing. Time and again people asked if this was because they didn’t see Landis as a threat and the answer was no, that’s not why. They just couldn’t seem to get the chase to work.
T-Mobile took over and the chase started in earnest. But there was no pulling Landis back. Carlos Sastre was the only one who really responded at first. He flew off the front and worked his way toward Landis. For awhile it looked like he might actually get to him, but it was not to be. Instead it became all a matter of time.

What was even more interesting was the fact that, at one point, Landis put so much time between himself and everyone else that he was the ‘virtual’ yellow jersey. Of course that wasn’t going to last, but for a guy who was eight minutes back, that was pretty amazing. And it said a lot for poor Oscar Pereiro who was in obvious trouble. Not necessarily the kind of trouble Landis had been in the day before, but trouble all the same.

He’d worked his team down until there was only one teammate helping him. And even then he was still going out the back. He and Michael Rasmussen worked together for awhile, but then both of them went their separate ways. Rasmussen later crossed the line with Denis Menchov, who just didn’t have the legs to win the tour this year.

But the yellow jersey is magic. Because no matter how down and out Pereiro looked, he always managed to find the strength to fight back. And, in the end, Pereiro kept his yellow jersey. Sastre road himself into second place, but the biggest surprise was neither of those things.

It wasn’t even that Landis had ridden so well after such a disaster the day before. Nor was it that he won the stage. It was that he rode himself from ninth place to third place. He’s now only 30 seconds down from the lead. Going from eight minutes back to 30 seconds back is crazy and unheard of. Most people didn’t even think it was possible. I certainly didn’t.

I also don’t think it’s the greatest single day of bike racing ever – but it was history. It was amazing and awesome. And I’d just like to say to France, how’s that for panache?

Tomorrow will not, of course, factor into the GC competition, except to serve as something of a rest day for the contenders and give some other riders a chance to win a stage. But it’ll be the time trial on Saturday that will determine the winner of the stage. I cannot wait.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Stage 16 - Wednesday, July 19: Le Bourg-d'Oisans - La Toussuire, 182 km

I am writing this at about ten pm (est) while I watch (for the third time today) the end of stage 16. Usually I try to be vague with when I write reports, just because it makes me feel better for slacking. But today, I don't know. Today was awesome (aside from the crashes – one in particular). I ended up writing the race report for again, it turned out all right. And as with the last one, it made me think really hard about the stage.

I started out the stage annoyed at Michael Rasmussen because he was on his way to taking the king of the mountains jersey from David De La Fuente (I know, I totally lauded him yesterday). But as the stage went on and as Rasmussen just kept staying out there (a la Virenque), the more I supported him. Last year I was a huge supported and I just had to be reminded why. Thank god he's not a GC contender because I don't want to watch him time trial like he did last year. Horrible and upsetting. But that's not the point. By the end of the stage I wanted Rasmussen to win and I was willing to yell at my TV if it helped (it did because he won. Obviously!).

Before I get to the yellow jersey competition, I'd like to talk about what was possible the worst moment of me being a fan of cycling. Sure, doping sucks and it especially sucks when cyclists I care about are accused or suffer because of accused riders. But today something worse happened. My favorite rider, Sylvain Chavanel, crashed. It was not one of the most horrific crashes in that there was blood everywhere. But it was horrible because he was curled up against a metal barrier and he didn't really seem to be moving. Not that I thought he was dead, per se, but definitely knocked out. Luckily, he wasn't. But what he did have was a huge gash on his neck, completely hidden from the world by his jersey.

But as I sat there, hands over my mouth at about 8:15 in the morning, I thought he was horribly hurt. I thought this was it, he was out. But, thank god, he got back on his bike. As, Eurosport maybe, said, he looked a bit wobbly. And he did, wobbly and stunned and in a lot of pain. And, much to my delight, he finished the stage with the autobus, about 44 minutes behind Rasmussen. I hope he is fit enough to start tomorrow, otherwise he should just rest up and kick ass next year.

And now, for the most exciting part of the stage. The final climb. Landis talked a lot about he wanted to race conservatively. And, well, he went a bit too conservative today and he lost the lead and eight minutes. There was attack after attack and Landis, for whatever reason (and I'm not going to go into them because I don't really care) couldn't keep up with them. In fact, he went backward instead of forward. It was really heartbreaking.

But what wasn't heartbreaking was Oscar Pereiro. That man makes me so happy. Somehow he's ended up being the person I'm rooting for. Sure, I like Landis and I'd have liked to see him attack today and do well, but it didn't happen. And, even before then, I found myself rooting for Pereiro. He won me over the other day in the break where he got the yellow. And today he just sealed my being a fan of his. Not only the way he didn't give or break, but the way he finished the stage. There is nothing quite watching a rider who wasn't even supposed to be a team leader sprint to the line for third. THIRD. He went to get the time bonus and get it he did. I was completely impressed with his bike handling.

The rest of the contenders, with the exception of Denis Menchov (who also lost it like Landis), fought hard. It seems like those riders on teams that had lost team leaders (due to doping or crashes) are the ones who want to win most. Not to take anything away from the other teams, but Phonak has their leader, Discovery lost no riders and Rabobank has their leader (I can't recall if they lost anyone). And, really, Gerlosteiner fits in there as well. Aside from Landis wearing the jersey for a few days and Hincapie wearing it as well, they've done almost nothing. It's CSC, Caisse d'Epargne, and T-Mobile who are stepping it up.

And I think that's what makes this Tour so exciting. There is no real leader. There is no one to dominate and the teams aren't as strong as in previous years. Perhaps it's because their leaders are gone or because this is a "we must act clean" tour or something. But whatever it is, I love it. And the fact that T-Mobile, after so many years of having only Ullrich on the front, had three riders, yes three, on the front of the group of 'contenders.' It's just amazing.

I really hope that tomorrow is just as exciting. I'dl ike Pereiro to end up in yellow again, but who knows. Anything can happen. And in this tour? Anything does happen. And it's awesome.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stage 15 - Tuesday, July 18: Gap - l'Alpe d'Huez, 187 km

It's not every day that a girl gets to watch cyclists ride up the l'Alpe d'Huez. Hell, it's not even every Tour, either. But when it happens, it's pretty damn amazing. And this year was no exception. I, of course, woke up at ten to seven to watch the (moderately crappy but sometimes hilarious) pre-race show. And then we got to our live coverage, which was slightly off at best. I finally figured out that I can't really do anything that requires too much attention while I watch or I miss stuff. It's okay on the flat stages because things happen with enough warning. But apparently the mountains are a bit like football. Things are always happening.

Today's stage started out with so much promise. There was a huge break containing quite a few riders that I just adore. Including David De La Fuente, Dave Zabriskie, Damiano Cunego, and most importantly (to me) Sylvain Chavanel. De La Fuente was there to gather KOM points and oh, did he ever. That boy continues to amaze me. I sincerely hope that he steps onto that podium in Paris. He, more than anyone else in the peloton, deserves those polka dots. Even though he goes out the back at the ends of stages, it doesn't matter. He gathers as much strength as he can and goes off the front and just takes charge. And today he got the best reward he could ever get (aside from stages wins, etc). His team leader, the one and only Gilberto Simoni, helped De La Fuente to the top of the l'Alpe d'Huez. It's rare that you see a team leader do something like that and when my friend Dor and I realized what was going on, we were so excited. Good on you, Gibo.

Zabriskie, on the other hand, was there with Jens Voigt, not for stage wins, but to work for Fränk Schleck. Now, I'm a in between CSC fan. I adore Dave Z and a few of the CSC tinies, and I love to watch Jens work. But most of the other riders are just there. That being said, what Voigt and Zabriskie did was amazing. They blew apart the huge break, thereby leaving only a handful of riders (if that) to fight for the stage win. They lost dropped all the cyclists who were chasing them (and at one time there must have been at least five or six groups or individuals on the road, plus the peloton). If it hadn't been for those two CSC riders, it's doubtful Schleck would have won the stage. And oh, win it he did. It was magnificent.

Chavanel, of course, did everything I expect, which wasn't much of anything. He did attack, but of course OLN was showing an interview with Armstrong because that's important and must be shown as the riders are climbing the mountain. And yes, that is sarcasm. One thing I do have to say for Chavanel is that he didn't completely crumble. Sure, he went out the back of the move, but then so did everyone except for two riders. He managed to cling on to the group containing the new yellow jersey and that's something, at least in my book.

And then we get to Daminao Cunego, or the kid. I just wrote profiles on both Cunego and Schleck for and both of these "kids" are great. But I have to say that I really had no idea just how good Cunego is, at least in Italy. He just keeps winning races. 2005 was an off year, but he's back. I will not be surprised if he wins a stage of this Tour. In fact, I'd like to see him win. He was the only rider who managed to stay with Schleck and I think, had CSC not had three rides in the break, Cunego would have run away with the win. I was impressed with his riding and really happy. I know that a lot of people don't like him (rubbish, I say), but I'm happy to see him do well.

Of course, there were other things going on in this stage. Tom Boonen (among others) abandoned. It was pretty heartbreaking to watch. But, like I mentioned to someone (somewhere), Boonen had seemed off this whole tour. There were also quite a few crashes, but the riders, for the most part, seemed all right. We'll find out tomorrow if the young Milram rider who was almost hit by one of the cars will start. They don't need to lose more riders, they've already lost several.

And then, of course, we have the battle for the yellow jersey. Obviously not high on my list of important things. A lot of people I've talked to recently have decide that they just don't like Landis and his tactics. I have to tell you that I feel as though we're watching completely different races. I mean, someone sees it as offensive that Landis doesn't attack but claims to be (though I haven't heard this) the 'boss' of the Tour. I, on the other hand, am extremely pleased that he didn't attack because how lame is it to ride off the front. I don't want a dominating Armstrong-esque rider winning the Tour. Sure, Landis is riding in his own way and he only rides hard enough to get rid of contenders, but isn't that what you're supposed to do? The other thing is the reports that people are writing about Andreas Kloden looking weak. I'm sorry, but the only person who managed to stick it out with Landis was Klodi. He never really (that I saw) looked like he was going to break. Sure, maybe he was running on maximum, but he didn't break.

Unlike Cadel Evans (and I so called that when I was on the phone with my mother) and Denis Menchov. I suppose the biggest disappointment of this stage was Menchov. He totally imploded (and I haven't read any interviews as to why) and it was really sad to see. I know that Rasmussen did his best to keep Menchov in the stage, but there's only so much you can do.

Other good performances of the stage? Cyril Dessel. The man just keeps on going. I'm really proud of him. And, of course, Oscar Pereiro. I know he didn't get the jersey again (and I kind of wanted him to), but he fought so hard. It was agonizing to watch. I was actually yelling at the TV telling him to ride harder. The top three, at the moment, are Landis, Pereiro and Dessel. I would really be happy with that as the final three in Paris. I know it won't happen, and god, tomorrow's stage might see it completely change. There's no accounting for mountains.

Oh, and hilarious moment of the day? The break had two Discovery riders in it and Armstrong was at the stage. And what happened? Discovery totally imploded. That shouldn't make me happy, but it kind of does.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Rest Day 2 - Monday, July 17: Gap

There are some items in the news I want to talk about and they do concern the tour, but I'm not going to mention them here. I'll write about them later tonight in the regular blog. But for now, my 10 things from the second week of the tour.

1. Competitiveness. This second week of the Tour has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, been one of the most exciting weeks in bike racing. At least for me. Not only did the jersey change hands three times, but there have been stages where anything was possible. I won't get into too many details, because I want to talk about some of the specifics, but suffice to say that I have been excited about every single stage (more than during the first week of the tour). It's not just because they're mountain stages, because they weren't all focused on that. It's because this tour acknowledges and embraces the fact that anyone (sort of) could win. And I just love that.

2. France. It was not a good day for the country on Bastille day. Only one Frenchman made it into the break and he ran out of energy before the line. The next day wasn't any better. But yesterday, Stage 14 proved to be a wonderful day for France. Pierrick Fedrigo surprised everyone (including possibly his country) but winning from a break that was almost caught. Now if only a few more French cyclists could gather some stage wins, it might make up (a tiny bit) for the WC loss.

3. Floyd Landis. He is the man, no doubt about it. I don't care if he wins or not, the fact that he's contending and on the bike every day even though he's got that hip thing is pretty awesome. But aside from that, he was in yellow and it was fantastic. I hope he's in yellow come Paris, but only time will tell.

4. Sylvain Chavanel. I know, I probably should have him in the 5 below, but I can't. Because no matter how much he might screw things up (like the end of Stage 13), he remains my favorite cyclist. He has the guts to admit he screwed up and promises to at least try to go again. I hope he does. And I'll keep rooting for him, regardless of what happens.

5. The Oscars (and no, I don't mean the award show). Yeah, I've got it bad. I will confess, right now, to adoring both of them. I was Freire to steal that green jersey from McEwen, but I'm almost certain it won't happen. Especially now that there's talk (rubbish, I hope) of some sort of Disco-Rabo partnership stuff. I also adore Pereiro. Not just because he's in yellow, but because of how he got into yellow. Because he's so shocked and surprised and refreshingly humble.


6. Crashes. Basically they suck. And they keep sucking. And unlike previous tours I've watched where there have been some bad crashes, but people basically seem okay and there are only a few that are just horrible, this tour is different. I don't know if it's the weather or the fact that everyone is fighting hard because the race is so open, but whatever it is, it's causing riders to drop, well, like flies. Yesterday was no exception. Two riders from a break had to abandon and it's a miracle a third was even able to get back on his bike, much less complete the race. I like excitement as much as the next person, but I could do without the horrific crashes.

7. Discovery. Now that Savoldelli's gone, there's no need for me to pay attention. And their attempt to win a stage on Sunday was just pathetic. I'm not one of those people who think that Popo's win (though he is truly adorable) was just what Discovery needs to get back on track. In fact, I think it probably hindered them instead of helping. They still don't have a clear leader and until they cut ties with the past, it's going to remain that way. I do adore several riders on the team, I just don't think they know how to function properly anymore. Or if they ever did. And this tour is just making them look like crap.

8. Teams in general. There has been a lot of odd team stuff going on. Teams going to the front and doing work for no reason. Teams criticizing other teams about not doing the work, when they should have been doing it themselves. Far too much backstabbing for me. Sure, it happens all the time, but it doesn't need to happen so publicly. I'm not a fan of calling people out -- your whole team maybe (if they're sucking), but not other teams and definitely not specific people (not that that's happen, it's just carryover from a few football/soccer incidents before and during the WC). Teams need to protect their own and go from there. If you want to chase down the break, do it. Don't rely on other people to do your bidding. It turns out that they won't.

9. The "real" Tour. Yeah, I'm tired of that crap too. The real Tour started on July first. And guess what? It's still going on. It consists of three weeks of bike racing and all of those stages are real. None of them are better than the other. Sure, some of them are more exciting and some of them are harder, but I'm sorry. Just because a stage is flat doesn't mean it has no impact on the rest of the tour. Things happen, crashes happen, breakaways happen. In this Tour, more than any others recently, all stages matter. Even if nothing really changes, things happen. And I'm tired of people talking about the mountains as if they are the only stages that matter. To me it's like saying that Armstrong is cycling. He's not and there are more stages to the Tour than just the mountains.

10. Commercials. I know this isn't directly tied to the race itself, but on OLN we get tons of them. I don't mind them too much because I'd rather watch them and get to see the Tour than not get to see it live at all. But I know lots of people are pissed off. Well, I'm tired of it. Just suck it up and deal. I know you'd rather would cover the tour -- but it can't. And no amount of whining about it (unless you're going to tell OLN that they need to stop showing commercials and just cut the ad revenue and thus stop showing the Tour completely) is going to change it. Cycling isn't like football where stuff happens all the time. I love the sport, but hell yes things sometimes don't happen for an hour. Of course, the timing of commercials is a whole different matter. I agree with Chris over at Podium Cafe when he says that there shouldn't be commercials at the start of the climb. But other than that, commercials are a fact of life. OLN can't be like and we just need to accept that and get over it.

Stage 14 - Sunday, July 16: Montélimar - Gap, 181 km

Stage 14 was an odd stage.

It could have, had the peloton stuck together, been a stage for sprinters. Perhaps Freire could have picked up some more points. The basic plan should have been for there to be a break that should stay out much of the day with the Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears team controlling the peloton. Then, as the stage came closer to finishing, teams such as Quick-Step or Lampre-Fondital or Davitamon-Lotto would come to the front. And, well, it did happen -- sort of.

There was a break of five riders (Martinez (Euskaltel), Kessler (T-Mobile), Aerts (Davitamon), Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) and Commesso (Lampre-Fondital)) who finally succeeded in launching off the front of the peloton. They were eventually joined by Verbrugghe (Cofidis) and Canada (Saunier Duval), passing Martinez who was eventually dropped completely. After Saturday's 29+ minute break lead, there was no way that the peloton would make the same "mistake" (I still don't believe it was a mistake, but that's neither here nor there). And so the chase began, but the break was having none of it. For several kilometers, the time didn't come down. But Quick-Step worked hard, it seemed that the break was doomed to failure. Of course that's when disaster struck.

First, it seemed the Boonen wasn't feeling well and it was Liquigas (I think) on the front and Quick-Step merging back with the rest of the peloton. And the breakaway rounded a corner and things just fell apart. It's hard to tell what happened first, though I've seen the crash at least 10 times. Reports state that Verbrugghe went down first, but what I saw seemed to point to Canada losing control of his bike. Either way, it was horrible. Verbrugghe crashed into a metal barrier and flew over. He broke his femur, I believe. Canada ran into the barrier, sliding around the road in the process. His collarbone is broken. T-Mobile's Kessler was not spared, either. He couldn't avoid crashing into Canada and then the barrier -- he flipped over it (his bike following him). Somehow he managed to get up and back on the bike, but his day in the break was over.

All that remained of the break were the three riders who avoided the crash: Fedrigo, Aerts and Commesso. With the peloton carefully chasing them, the three worked hard. Eventually Aerts was dropped and it was Fedrigo and Commesso left to keep the peloton at bay. Behind them, though, all hell was breaking lose. There was another crash (though I believe everyone got up) when Chavanel (I know, I know) and a few others managed to find a ditch. And slowly but surely, different teams went to the front (including Discovery, who were supposedly trying to get the win because Armstrong was showing up that day). The pace was high -- so high that the peloton cracked. Riders were spread out and when the race finally ended, the last rider didn't cross the line for at least 30 minutes after the winner.

As for the break? Fedrigo and Commesso had no desire to give up and be sucked up by the peloton (or what was left of it). They fought what seemed like their inevitable catch. But, much to my surprise (and perhaps the commentators, too), they weren't caught. Even more surprising was the fact that Fedrigo beat Commesso to the line. It was a case of Fedrigo not being as exhausted as we all thought and fantastic maneuvering to get around Commesso for the win. It was a good day for France. And a fitting end to a rather strange stage.

As predicted, nothing much changed. Although De La Fuente (and several of his Saunier Duval teammates) had a rough day, he is still KOM. The rest of the jerseys remain the same as well. But, come the Alps on Tuesday, that should all change.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Stage 13 - Saturday, July 15: Béziers - Montélimar, 231 km

It was almost the best stage of the tour. Why? Sylvain Chavanel was in the break. The only way it would have been better is if Sylvain could have won it. But he didin't listen to me (and I was shouting pretty loudly at my TV) as I explained how he should attack. It was Jens Voigt who did exactly as I suggested Chavanel should do. So I just spent a lot of the final kilometers being mad at Sylvain. He has since admitted that he totally screwed up his chances to win, so that's something.

I probably cared more about stage 13 than any of th previous stages. It's hard to care that much because it hurt when Sylvain just couldn't finish for the win. But, that being said, I am fans of both Jens Voigt and Oscar Pereiro, so the results weren't say, as bad as if it had been McEwen or something. I was disappointed, of course, but that's cycling, right?

The stage started with attacks, but it was the five man group that managed to stay away. They were Jens Voigt, Oscar Pereiro, Sylvain Chavanel, Manuel Quinziato and Andriy Grivko. They did a fantastic job of working and took around 30 minutes out of the peloton at one point. It was around then that the time dropped to 27 minutes and with 14/15km to go, Grivko attacked. Sadly for the young Ukrainian (the young rider of the group), he attacked to early and with too much effort. He was easily caught and then he was dropped, never to see the remaining for again.

Then it was Chavanel who attacked. Alas, this didn't stick either. But with that attack, Sylvain had screwed up the cooperation the group had previously thrived on. Soon there were a few other attacks, but it wasn't until Voigt went that anything lasted. He went, followed by Pereiro and neither Sylvain nor Quinziato could catch him. Sylvain later said that he'd picked the wrong man to be the strongest. As much as I adore Sylvain, if Jens Voigt is in a break, that's the man you stick to.

It was left for Sylvain and Quinziato to fight out third and fourth because the battle was going on without them. Voigt and Pereiro weren't giving anything away. They battled it out, talking to each other the whole way. For a moment, it looked like Pereiro wasn't going to contest the win, but he did. He fought hard, but it was Voigt who, to the surprise of no one, was stronger. It was a great stage win for Voigt (his second tour stage) and for CSC.

But it was Pereiro who lucked out. Not only did he come in second in an all day breakaway, he managed to acquire the yellow jersey. How did this happen? The peloton needed to be at least 28 minutes behind the stage. So, not only was this breakaway successful, it was totally awesome. The peloton finished 29 minutes behind the break, giving Pereiro the jersey. Much, I must add, to the relief of Phonak. No one wants to work their riders so hard before the stages that might actually determine the winner.

The stage was brilliant and I hope that tomorrow's is just as good.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stage 12 - Friday, July 14: Luchon - Carcassonne, 211 km

It was another day with a breakaway, and much to my joy, the winner came from that break. Who that winner was might not have pleased me, but I'll get to that later.

The stage was "falt" in that there were not huge mountains, but it wasn't really flat. It was fun to watch, not just because I adore breaks, but instead because I love tactics as well. And one of the things that made this stage so different was that the tactics didn't quite reflect the tactics of the riders in the break. Last year's best young rider, Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery) of the Ukraine, was the highest placed rider in the stage.

Landis and Phonak, theoretically, should have chased down the break. But they didn't, not really. I mean, the time between them was just enough so that Popovych was able to slip into 10th place overall. But Phonak didn't feel Landis was in danger or that Popovych would be able to challenge for the overall lead and so they left the break alone.

The break had a mind of it's own and there were more tactics, of course! In addition to Popovych, Oscar Freire, Alessandro Ballan, and Christophe Le Mevel made up the three other riders. I was rooting for either Freire or Ballan for the win -- especially Freire so he could take more points for the green jersey. I want him to unseat McEwen. But that was not to be, though Freire did gather more points and passed Boonen to take over second in the competition.

What did happen was actually a lot more interesting. Discovery told Popovych that he needed to attack the group repeatedly, and that's exactly what he did. He shook Le Mevel first (who later said he just didn't have the legs, though he'd wanted the win on Bastille Day). Ballan and Freire were hot on his heels, but the more Popo attacked, the harder it was for both sprinters to follow. In post race interviews, Popo mentioned that there was no way he'd have beaten the two sprinters at the line. So he did the only thing he could -- attack. And finally it worked.

Ballan and Freire were left to fight second and third out amongst themselves. Popo, on the other had, road away with the stage win and 10th place over all. While he didn't make up for Discovery losing two riders (Noval and Savoldelli) he did do a lot for the team's moral. I'm not buying that this will turn around Discovery, but I think that it does help. And they definitely needed it.

Nothing much else changed, though. Ballan took second and Freire third. It was Le Mevel bringing up the rear. Four minutes later, Boonen managed to beat McEwen to the line for fifth, which was a nice change.

Stage 13 is similar to 12, flat (oh, you know what I mean, not REALLY flat) and good for breaks.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Stage 11 - Thursday, July 13: Tarbes - Val d'Aran/Pla-de-Beret (Spain), 208 km

It was supposed to be the stage where the contenders would put time between themselves and the rest of the peloton. It was the day we were supposed to find out which team was the strongest. All pre-race predictions had been thrown out the window with the whole doping affair. Except, of course, for that of Discovery. They'd lost no riders and were expected (and talked up) to be just as good now that Armstrong was gone.

What happened was not at all what was expected.

Though some people picked Landis, many had not. But he proved that he has the legs. He was not, as certain commentators expected, the dominate cyclist that Armstrong was. But of course that was not unexpected. Instead, he kept pace with a few of the other contenders and a former one (unless there is a miracle, Leipheimer won't contend).

The stage started with a breakaway, consisting of four riders (two started and then they were caught by two more). The break was on a mission to get KOM points and oh, did they get them. What was really impressive was the young riders, David De La Fuente. He set his heart on the king of the mountains and won them all – except the final, of course.

Thomas Voeckler tried to join the four riders, but that wasn't to be. He worked hard, but the peloton decided they were having none of it and caught Voeckler and three of the original escape riders. It was De La Fuente alone and then T-Mobile stepped up the power on the front. He was caught and the "real race" began. Which I think is crap, but there you go.

T-Mobile on the front after Ag2R did everything in their power to keep the yellow jersey. Dessel couldn't handle it and eventually slipped out of the peloton. And that's when trouble really started. Riders began dropping from the front group, a few every kilometer until there were 18 riders. And then Rabobank sent Boogerd and Rasmussen (who was also trying to get KOM points) to the front to work for Menchov, and work they did. They pushed until there was nothing left for either of them. Rasmussen went first, shortly followed by Boogerd (who still had enough energy to finish sixth). What had dwindled to seven riders, shrunk even further. The contenders (and former) were fighting it out. Sastre and Evans were the next to crack, leaving just three riders. Leipheimer, Menchov and Landis.

Yeah, note the lack of Discovery riders. In face, note the lack of T-Mobile riders as well. I'll write about that later, though. So, it was left to Leipheimer, Menchov and Landis to battle it out for the stage win. And that's when we realized that Landis also had the chance of getting the yellow jersey.

From all reports, it seemed that Landis would not contest the sprint – not good for his hip. But it looked like all three were going to try for the win. Leipheimer, having nothing to gain but a bit of time and a win, wanted it perhaps the most. He's mostly out of contention for the yellow, after a crap day at the TT. But it was Menchov who was the strongest. As in so many years previously, it was the rider with the most teammates who usually managed a win. And, in this case, it was Denis Menchov. Rasmussen and Boogred did their job and Menchov outsprinted Leipheimer, with Landis coming in third.

It was a really good stage, from the moment the live coverage started at 6:50 (ignoring the pre-race crap) until it ended around 11:30 or so. The break, the mountains and Dessel. Speaking of Dessel, a lot of people thought we were going to see a repeat of Voeckler's '04 performances in the mountains. Sadly, it was not to be. But to his credit, Dessel is in second by only eight seconds.

Of course, this might all change once we reach the Alps. That's the best thing about this year's tour. Anything can happen – and it does. Oh, and I wrote the Stage 11 report for Bicirace. You can read it here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Stage 10 - Wednesday, July 12: Cambo-les-Bains - Pau, 190.5 km

I'm a day off again, but work and all. I actually had to watch this stage twice, because Comcast sucks and though that doing their emergency thing right as the stage finished. I guess it was all Comcast, not just in Michigan. GAH. So I had to force myself to listen to Bob and Al. It wasn't so bad, mostly because I tuned them out. Anyway.

Stage 10 was exciting, of course I went to work before it was over and had to tape it. So I came home and watched it. I knew who won and everything, but that didn't stop it from being an interesting stage (and got me out of having to watch Project Runway like 90% of my friends, wtf?).

There was a break that slowly just took over the race. It started as a bigger group and just dwindled down until there were just two of them. And the two? A French rider from a French team and a Spanish rider from a French team. What a day for France! On the day that Zidane apologized (sort of) for his behavior, a French rider donned the yellow jersey. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but whatever.

So, the break. It was fantastic. I am always a huge fan of breaks (just as much as sprint finishes, really) and to have a real one that actually made it? Awesome. Even better was the fact that one of the riders actually got to take over the yellow jersey. So much fun. Cyril Dessel of AG2R found the willpower and the legs to stay away from the pack and take both the yellow jersey and the king of the mountains jersey. If he's lucky, he'll keep one of them. His partner in crime for most of the stage was Juan Miguel Mercado of Agritubel. Mercado rode just as hard as Dessel and managed to steal (I say that just because it's fun, not for any other reason) the win. They both deserved it after their amazing ride. Third went to Inigo Landaluze of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who fought hard but could never quite catch the two leaders.

As for the rest of the peloton? As predicted, T-Mobile worked to control the peloton and failed. And Gonchar slipped off the back, along with a lot of other people -- like Levi (I am too lazy to go look up how to spell his last name) and Mayo (who should just stop, he's obviously not cut out for the tour). Discovery riders were nowhere to be seen (though they were there, just oddly invisible). Floyd was there and a few of the sprinters impressed us (like Zabel and Freire). But overall? It was about the break.

There wasn't much to say, since this stage was just a sample of the mountains to come. Stage 11 is the killer -- this week.

Oh, one last thing. One of the best things about yesterday was the scenery. I really loved about Stage 10 was the scenery. I loved the fog as they rode up the mountains and the scenes off the sides of the cliffs as they road around. It was stunning. As I've told many people, one of the things I love about cycling is the landscape. No other sport has such beautiful scenery as cycling. No matter where the race is (Germany, the US France, or Australia -- or anywhere, really), race organizers find the most beautiful views and send the cyclists there. I highly approve of that.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Stage 9 - Tuesday, July 11: Bordeaux - Dax, 170 km

Aren't you surprised? I'm posting on the correct day! Mostly because I have to work tomorrow and will only be able to catch the stage up until 9:30 in the morning (but I am getting up at 7 to shower and such so I can watch straight until then). But anyway, back to the stage.

Over at Podium Cafe, someone mentioned that they found this stage (and I don't know if it was just today's or flat stages in general) to be boring. And, honestly, I can see where people who feel this way are coming from. Just like I understand that not everyone likes cycling. But while I get it, I don't agree. Sure, crazy things happen to the GC on mountain stages and people get sent out the back and breaks are exciting. But, there's something soothing about flat stages. I love them because they lull you into a false sense of security and then BAM something happens (a crash, a breakaway, a few riders going for points or a time bonus) and you have to pay at least some sort of attention because things happen. Especially when you don't think they will.

And then, of course, you have the sprint. A lot of times I find the finale of a mountain stage to be a huge letdown. All the excitement has already happened and there's nothing left to do except finish the stage, but flat stages are completely different. There are brief moments of action and mostly just riding. And then, suddenly, the pace starts to move faster. The peloton is on edge and if the riders are lucky, everything falls into place. What's made this tour even more exciting (and dangerous) is that nothing is falling into place. The sprinters' teams have to battle hard to get into place and there's no one there to really control it. Sure, some might except T-Mobile (because they've got the leader on their team) or Discovery or Phonak to control it -- but they won't. Not yet, at least.

So it's up to the other teams and they try. They constantly throw riders up to move the peloton, especially if there's a break to be caught. And when they are caught (in all but one of the flat stages so far this tour), chaos ensues. And it's amazing. We get dramatic wins and surprises and crashes. This is what makes flat stages fun. It's all about the rush to the finish. When a flat stage concludes, something has happened. And that's how it makes me, the viewer feel. I can understand how someone could find it boring, but I think they're just missing the point.

Flat stages are wonderful. Of course, that being said, I cannot wait for Stage 11 on Thursday. But, back to flat stages. Today's was one of the flattest stages of this year's tour (or at least I think so, I haven't compared them that closely) and the end was completely fitting. And it really made me happy.

Not much really happened, not even that many crashes. There were a few assorted problems, and everyone kept their jerseys. But there was a break, made up of three riders who fought hard and worked together but, as luck would have it, were eventually caught. I actually watched the last hour of the stage twice, which was fun. Especially because I knew who won and it pleased me.

The buildup was good and multiple teams sent men to the front. But, due to the lack of a train like Petacchi and Cipo had in the past, the front of the peloton was a mess. Of course there was a crash and people lost time, but luckily everyone seemed to get back on their bikes and finish, which was good. But while those who crashed were trying to catch up/hang on, the sprinters were blowing my mind.

It looked, several times, like at least five different sprinters would win. I yelled a few times for Zabel and Hushovd and Freire. I saw Boonen and at one point I thought he was going to win it. And then all hell broke loose. McEwen was boxed in (again!) and everyone was battling and then suddenly, out of nowhere it was Freire and McEwen. And everyone knows I can't stand McEwen, but today I was completely and totally impressed (and I was able to be because of the stage result). He just fly around the other riders and came out of nowhere.

And, of course, he didn't win. Instead it was Oscar Freire. And man, that totally made me happy. It was really fun to see Freire beat McEwen to the line. But I agree with what everyone's said, had the finish line been a foot further, McEwen would have taken the win. But he didn't, and that makes me happy. Freire and Boonen are closer to the green jersey, but I don't know if they'll be able to take it before the final stage (I hope, but I am not holding my breath).

It was a good stage with a great finish.

Rest Day 1 - Monday, July 10: Bordeaux

Rest Day Number One. The biggest news, of course, is Zidane's head butt. Oh, wait, no. Wrong sport. The biggest news of the Tour de France is Floyd Landis. The NY Times reported that Landis will most likely be having hip replacement surgery after the tour.

» Landis's Hip Will Need Surgery After Bid for Tour
CHÂTEAUBOURG, France, July 9 — Second over all in the Tour de France and a strong favorite to win the race when it ends July 23, Floyd Landis confirmed on Sunday a report that he had been riding in severe pain for four years because of a degenerative hip condition he had kept secret. He said he was planning to have his right hip replaced in an operation.
Skip to next paragraph
Eric Gaillard/Reuters

"If I hadn't had a bicycle-racing career, I would have had the hip replaced two years ago because I don't really want to deal with the pain," said Landis, the 30-year-old American leader of the Phonak team from Switzerland.
It rings a bit of the whole Armstrong cancer thing, but whatever. It's kind of interesting because it's like American cyclists need something like this. I pick Saul Raisin to come back and win the tour in a few years. Okay, the fact that he's alive is pretty damn awesome, so we'll just leave it at that.

Anyway, back to the point of this post. The past two years I've done a top ten of the tour so far (and then later, between rest days) and this year is no different. So, here it goes -- 5 good things and 5 bad things.

1. The wide open tour. Everyone, including myself, believed that the doping could signal the end of the Tour as we knew -- something fun and exciting. Little did we know. It turns out that I haven't had this much fun watching the tour since I started watching (which, I know, is that long ago -- but seriously, 2003! It's been three years, you'd think ...). Not only has Armstrong retired, but almost every single true favorite (I know, people picked Hincapie and Landis and Valverde, but they weren't serious) couldn't start and we have an amazing and exciting. It really makes me happy and it's doing good things for cycling as well. The show WILL go on and not just because it has to.

2. Time trials. The first was just a prologue and it established, though temporarily, that Hincapie was here to fight. And Hushovd impressed, but I'll get to him in a moment. The second time trial shook everything up. Not only did it put a Ukrainian on top, it totally filled the top ten with cyclists from German teams and exposed the weaknesses in all of the favorites -- and the rest of the peloton. Instead of asserting their dominance, as Armstrong had done for so many years, they fell to the side. This is not, in any way, a bad thing.

3. Breakaway on Stage 8. I know there have been others and exciting things have happened, but there was just something about the stage eight breakaway that was magic. It's not just that they lasted (in whatever small form) but the winner was French and he won alone. And then the second and third place riders gave everything they had to make it and they did, with 10 seconds to spare. It just really made me happy to see it.

4. Thor Hushovd. I know, there are other stories, but I'm a big fan of Hushovd (I've got a thing for Scandinavians). He took the opening prologue and it was amazing. I was so proud of him and he was in yellow and he beat out Hincapie (who I'm not a fan of) so it was just wonderful. And then disaster struck, and yet Hushovd finished the stage and showed just how badass cyclists are. And then went and took the yellow jersey the next day. And he's still racing. How is he not awesome?

5. Competitive nature of the jerseys. This is just general and I couldn't use 'fans' twice, because I'd just be redundant. It seems that this year, more than ever, everyone is out to get jerseys. It's really kind of awesome. You've got a tough fight for the yellow, a big battle for the green and then you have the two other jerseys. The KOM cause a mini-fight and once we get into the mountains, who knows who is going to happen. I'm hoping Rasmussen will find a way to get the jersey -- but you never know. And, of course, that leaves the young rider. It's not a tight competition, there's a minute or so between the leader and the second place, but all one of those young riders have to do is get in a break. Or Fothen, in his first tour, will just crack. It's all wide open and a lot of fun.


6. Doping. This goes without saying. So I'm not going to say much except that it sucks but at least it didn't completely ruin the tour. Yes, my team couldn't race and I lost two favorites (Davis and Contador, though Contador is denying any doping charges and I believe him because he's my boy), but at the same time my favorite rider is still racing and tour is still going on. That's cycling, I guess.

7. Crashes. They have been horrible and tragic. First with the incident about Hushovd's arm. Then Dekker and Rodriguez. And, of course, the loss of Valverde. Of course it doesn't end there and during the time trial on we lost Bobby Julich. While not anything close to a favorite of mine, his crash was horrible. Hopefully the rest of the tour will be low-crash, but I don't hold out hope.

8. Americans. They've sucked. There's no doubt that Landis is the best of the bunch, but in a race when they were supposed to be proving themselves, they've fallen flat. From Hincapie to Landis to Zabriskie to Leipheimer. Of course, I'll go on to say that of course that's why I don't pin my hopes on the Americans at the Tour. But my pick for a winner (since Vino's gone) is Landis, so I can't say that. I don't know what their problem is -- maybe too much pressure to "replace" Armstrong (stupid, stupid, stupid). Maybe just too much pressure in general with the doping business. But that's cycling and all of them should know better. We'll just wait and see what happens. Landis is the best placed and the most composed, I believe. He had to go through this last year with Hamilton anyway, so he's been there. It's just a bit of bad luck that he's not in yellow, I think.

9. Weather. It's been hot. Disgustingly hot. And then it'll rain a bit and go back to being hot. Hopefully it'll sort itself out in the mountains, but I don't hold out much hope. It's not an excuse (like England with their we can't play in hot weather crap), but it's there. These guys are tough, though. The crashes just happen more when it's hotter.

10. Fans. I wanted to say that they were good. They helped when Dekker and Rodriguez crashed, but that's it. They were the reason Hushovd's arm was cut up and they caused Sandy Casar to crash. I cannot imagine what might happen with the thousands of fans in the mountains. I hope that they learn to behave themselves. This year, more than ever, it seems the fans are causing more problems than before. Or maybe it's just that they are doing it more visibly this year.

Whatever happens, though, I think this tour is pretty damn awesome. I can't wait for the next two weeks.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Stage 8 - Sunday, July 9: Saint-Méen-le-Grand - Lorient, 181 km

I am behind a day. Real life and the World Cup got in the way. No, I wasn't rooting for Italy. Yes, I still love Zidane. And yes, I am ready for the EPL and CL. Moving on.

Sunday's stage was yet another flat stage. But unlike previous stages, there was something special out the break. And that something special was Sylvain Calzati. He went off the front of the break and somehow managed to stay away. It was pretty amazing. I was also impressed with the fact that he managed to go off the front, keep the two chasers from catching him -- and finish over two minutes ahead of the peloton.

In a tour that's been anything but normal, this stage fit right in. It was the first flat stage to have a breakaway actually work. And it was just awesome that Calzati did it alone. It's too bad that the French football team couldn't back him up.

There were also two chasers who fought it out for second and third place. They were almost caught by the peloton, only 10 seconds separated them. Finland's Kjell Carlström and France's Patrice Halgand did a really good job of keeping ahead of the peloton, but no matter how hard they tired, they just could not catch Calzati.

Other than the break, nothing much happened. The yellow remains on the Gonchar's shoulders. McEwen is still in green (much to the dismay of Tom Boonen) and there were also no changes in the King of the Mountains or the young rider. Of course, come Wednesday, all of this might change. But before then we have a rest day (Monday) and another flat stage (Tuesday). I hope, though, that we'll get another break that lasts.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Stage 7 - Saturday, July 8: Saint-Grégoire - Rennes ITT, 52 km

It was supposed to be a day when the contenders would be exposed. When everyone would know who the top riders at the tour were. What happened was completely unexpected. The worst, of course, was poor Bobby Julich. He crashed horribly (took a corner far too fast) and that finished his tour. Such a sad result. Another big surprise, Levi Leipheimer completely underperformed, while a few of his teammates did surprisingly well. CSC's Dave Zabriskie also didn't do that well, finishing a disappointing 13th. And to completely the disappointment for the US, Discovery did not get a single rider in the top ten of the stage.

George Hincapie, one of the so-called favorites, failed to show anything like the form he had during the short prologue at the beginning of the tour. Hincapie finished fourth, and the best placed Discovery rider was Paolo Savoldelli in 19th.

Not everyone was disappointing. Six of the top ten were from German teams (T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner). One of those, the seventh place finisher, was the young Marcus Fothen in his first Tour de France. His teammate, Sebastian Lang, also road well and held the lead for most of the stage.

But hope was not completely lost for the Americans -- or me. Since the dismissal of Vino's team, I'd been search for a new "favorite." I'd settled on Landis or Valverde, but with Valverde out after a horrible crash, I was left with Landis or a fantasy (aka Chavanel or Gilbert -- impossible). And so when Landis was reported to have had a flat, I was about to throw my hands up in the air in despair. Of course, I should not have.

Instead of letting the flat ruin his time trial, Landis decided to step it up. For the second time trial in a row, Landis lost significant seconds but proved that he is something else. He fought and fought and finished the stage in second place. I know a lot of people said that had he not had the flat, he wouldn't have fought so hard, but I don't know. And honestly I don't think it matters. He went all out and made up a lot of time. And while most people are at least a minute and several seconds back, Landis is exactly a minute behind the man in the yellow jersey.

The man, of course, is Serguei Gonchar. The Ukrainian T-Mobile rider (and former world time trial champion) rode a superb time trial and settled himself comfortably into the yellow jersey. Of course, he's not known for his climbing and therefore it unlikely he'll remain in yellow.

But everything isn't bleak for T-Mobile. There are five Germans in the top ten of the general classification, and of those, four are from T-Mobile. Gonchar is obviously in first, but following are Mick Rogers in third, Patrik Sinkewitz in fourth and the man most likely to lead T-Mobile, Andreas Klöden. If Klöden is on form, and it's hard to say -- we haven't seen a lot of him so far, he could definitely be up there fighting it out with Landis.

Another surprise is the fifth place on GC for the young Marcus Fothen. He established himself in the white jersey yesterday and, if he can, plans to keep it. Of course, his goal is now to work for his teammates, but you never know.

There are no French riders in the top ten so far. The closest is Christophe Moreau, but he's in 12th. Of course, we have yet to hit the mountains and it's likely everything will change again.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Stage 6 - Friday, July 7: Lisieux - Vitré, 189 km

The sprinters, as they say, will have their day. Though I'm not sure who exactly "they" are, Stage 6 was certainly their day. It didn't of course, start out that way. Instead, there were a flurry of break attempts, including one with some 17 cyclists (including the yellow jersey -- I don't know whose bright idea that was). It of course didn't last, but such is the nature of the break. In fact, it's the theme of the breaks in the tour this year. Not a single one has lasted.

I listened to the stage at work on Eurosport (which was so totally awesome. I might ditch OLN audio in favor of Eurosport -- I just haven't decided on that yet) and one of the commentators was really excited about breaks. He called himself a bit sentimental because not only did he want Erik Zabel to win (birthday boy and all), but if he couldn't have that, he wanted the break to stay away. And I'm there with him. I love breaks that last. Hopefully we'll have a few in the early mountains.

The Stage 6 break consisted of three riders, the French Champion Florent Brard, Maggie Bäckstedt, and Anthony Geslin. Two French and one Swede. They works had, though Bäckstedt worked the hardest. They were doomed from the start, since Geslin was the highest ranked rider and QuickStep was definitely not going to lose the jersey before the so called 'defining' time trial on Saturday. So the riders kept at it, even though it was a mostly futile effort. It'd have been nice for one of them to win, but of course it wasn't to be.

Nor was it to be Erik Zabel's birthday. He'd won his first Tour de France race 11 years ago to the day. And, on the day he turned 36, many of us (myself included) wanted him to in. But unfortunately it was not a stage that suited Zabel. Instead, there was, of course, a bit of a battle. And the winner? Simple the best at sprinting out of nowhere, Robbbie McEwen. Again.

Yes, you read that right. McEwen managed to win another stage -- his third of the tour this year. THIRD. I cannot believe it. I mean, well, yeah he's good (and even though I cannot stand him, I at least admit that) but really. I'd like to see other people win stages. Which, I suppose, is why a lot of people don't like sprinter's stages. I'll confess that a stage can be pretty awesome and then McEwen will win and I'll just think the stage sucked. But a stage shouldn't be judged by it's winner. And today's was a good stage, in spite of the fact that McEwen won.

Boonen kept the yellow jersey for one more day (unless he blows us all away with his time trialling skills -- but I don't think he has a chance). The King of the Mountain jersey didn't change hands (even though there was a brief fight the other day. And, most impressively, the young Benoît Vaugrenard took back the young rider's jersey with some awesome tactics. He took a six second time bonus that put him back in white and gave him three seconds on Marcus Fothen. The white jersey competition is turning out to be a lot of fun. I'm actually writing about it over at cycling fans.