Thursday, July 26, 2007

Stage 17 - Thursday, July 26: Pau - Castelsarrasin, 188.5km

There are so many things I could say about this stage. It started, for me, at seven am. I watched an hour of the Eurosport coverage and listened to interview after interview. The Rabobank riders were stunned while the French riders were outspoken. It was also interesting to listen to the people in charge (of the UCI and ASO) and who blames who and so on. But there was a race going on. And by about nine am (eastern time in the US), racing was finally on Versus.

What happened in the stage? A breakaway that was chased hard by Caisse d'Epargne, but that was eventually shut down. And what we had was a breakaway that could last -- and surprisingly (at least during this tour) they did just that. It looked, the commentators said and I agreed, that the cyclists were just worn out. In the past few days, things have been extremely stressful (which was too much for Denis Menchov, who abandoned for no obvious physical reason -- perhaps the cycling equivalent of a broken heart).

The breakaway worked well together, but the pace began to build, little by little, until riders, such as David Millar, were shed from the group. There were four remaining riders, and perhaps it would be Jens Voigt's day at last. He won the same stage a year ago. Or maybe it would be the German kid, Markus Fothen. Or, perhaps, Martin Elmiger of AG2r. Of course, we were all wrong. Lampre's Daniele Bennati read everything perfectly.

He managed to get the break to play right into his hands -- and it helped that he's a great sprinter. He read the moves extremely well and attacked at just the right moment. He left the rest of the break and took the win, impressively as well. The second win for an Italian this year and first for Lampre.

It was a good stage. It was a hard stage for everyone, but the finish and the second sprint for the remaining points, were safe and done quite well. It was actually a really nice to move forward from the previous days stages. Maybe it's something about the mountains that drains people and makes all of this crap about doping easier to spot. Or maybe we're just all relieved to have gotten out of the mountains, to leave all of this behind (at least for now).

The only jersey to change was the yellow jersey. It's on the shoulders of the young Discovery riders, Alberto Contador. He did not wear it during the stage, even though he had the lead (a brave move, I think). He graciously put on the jersey and while I don't know if I want him to win (nor do I want the rest of the top three to win either), I think this is good for the sport. Especially if this kid is clean (and it seems he might be, but only time and tests will tell).

Tomorrow's stage is a little rougher than today, but the tour is almost over. The top riders will be saving themselves for the time trial on Saturday. It should be a breakaway stage -- and I hope it is. Perhaps a French rider will surprise us and take a win. Sadly, it won't be my Frenchman. But I'll be there, watching. And I hope you will be too.

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