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.

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