Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stage 18 - Friday, July 27: Cahors - Angoulême, 211km

Again it was a breakaway day. I spent much of it trying to decide who I wanted to win. I did not really care about the Bouygues Telecom riders, Laurent Lefevere. So that left me with the three remaining breakaway companions, vying for my cheering and the stage win (guess which one was more important).

Did I want Axel Merckx, rumored to be retiring at the end of the year, to win? It would be good for T-Mobile and he'd make a great sentimental win (even if he doesn't retire). Or did I want Sandy Casar, a rider I root for because I like Française des Jeux, to win? In Casar's case, it'd be a first win for him and a win for his team – which would be great because they tend not to win a lot of stages in the Tour. Maybe it was going to be his day – but there was that crash with the dog and he looked to be suffering. If I had to pick from those three (Lefevere, Merckx and Casar), it would be Casar.

But, of course, that wasn't the mix. There were, by the end of the stage, just four riders in the break. The fourth being Rabobank rider Michael Boogerd. Here's a man who gave everything he had, practically running himself down to nothing, for Michael Rasmussen when he was still in the tour. Then, much to his horror (and shock), Rasmussen was kicked off the team and out of the Tour, leaving Boogerd with no one to work for. So, two days after the leader was removed from the Tour, Boogerd was fighting for the stage win. He, too, will retire at the end of the season and a win would be not only sentimental, but good for team morale.

Even with all of that, though, as the riders came to the last 250 meters I still didn't know who I wanted to win. In fact, even as Casar crossed the line, I wasn't sure! But, of course, that meant that it wasn't a disappointment. And it was quite amusing to see how the break had played just into Casar's hands. He was, as Phil and Paul said, the carrot. They all underestimated him and overestimated how bad his injuries were. Casar would probably hurt that night and during the ITT on Saturday, but he managed to play us all – and it was brilliant. He used excellent tactics to go one way around some road furniture and totally out play the other riders. It was a pleasure to watch.

The chasing peloton, who were once 17 minutes behind the breakaway, managed to bring the gap down to eight minutes. Green jersey leader Tom Boonen needed to beat the rest of the sprinters to the line in order to secure his jersey – and that's exactly what he did. Robbie Hunter came in second, followed by Zabel, and Sébastien Chavanel. It was a decent enough finish, though we all know I'm not Boonen's biggest fan. But I must say, Sébastien Chavanel has really come into his own at Française des Jeux – which is really nice. Not since Baden Cooke rode for the team has the team had a good, solid sprinter (I know people will argue that Bernhard Eisel is good – but I disagree completely). Hopefully next year he'll do even better.

So how did the standings hold up to this stage eighteen? Nothing changed. Boonen, as stated above, sealed his green jersey win and everything stayed the same – just as predicted. The only thing that changed was that Contador lost a few seconds to Evans when a little gap formed in the peloton. The importance of these seconds will be revealed in the time trial.

I am not a fan of anyone in the top four and I suppose I'd want some sort of disaster in the ITT, but of course that won't happen. And therefore, the chances of, oh, Zubeldia or Valverde winning are absolutely zero. Soon enough we'll find out who will most likely ride into Paris as the winner of the Tour de France. Of course, as we all know, anything can happen.

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