172.5km of effort, 6 inches of glory! That best describes yesterday’s stage 4 of Le Tour. Where else does one find such microscopic distances distinguishing competitors in a marathon event. For the record, Cadel Evans edged out a highly spirited Alberto Contador in the most dramatic fashion at the end of day four yesterday. It was so close in fact that the Spaniard raised his arm in triumph, confident of having nipped his old adversary by his late charge.
The photo-finish replays proved otherwise and it is just another sign how things are not going as per plan for the defending champion. But Contador and his manager seem pleased with his overall performance, and considering he got one better over most of the main contenders, this could be seen as a sign that the Saxo Bank leader is not taking things lying down.
Evans was ecstatic after the victory – his first since 2007 – and thanked his team for the achievement. He said, “My hero today is Marcus Burghardt who made sure I was exactly where I was meant to be. I can’t believe I beat Philippe Gilbert going into a headwind like that.” This victory was more remarkable considering the BMC rider had to drop off to the rear for fixing his gears a mere 15km from the finish. The only minor irritant for Evans may have been his failure to snatch maillot jaune from Thor Hushovd, who finished a commendable sixth.
The Norwegian was expected to struggle on this stage, especially in the tricky uphill finish. But it was to his credit that despite all odds he pulled himself, successfully defending his slender margin of ‘one second’ over Evans. Based on this performance and with the profiles of the upcoming stages, he should pretty much see through till Saturday in yellow.
Race organisers had specially designed this stage to finish on “The Wall” with its mile long dead straight ascent to throw the peloton out of its comfort zone. Higher powers were in no mood of mercy either with much of the stage being run in miserable conditions. Sleeting rain rendered roads so greasy that the first crash came in the neutral zone itself, even before the stage was flagged off by the race director.
Yet again a breakaway was formed within the first 10km, this time being lead by the Frenchman Jeremy Roy (FDJ) with Gorka Izagirre Insausti (Euskatel), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) and Blel Kadri (AG2R) for company. They continued on their own till the day’s intermediate sprint with a max gain of around four minutes over the main group. But soon Garmin-Cervelo and Omega Pharma-Lotto whipped the peloton into action and despite the sternest fight from the leaders, they were caught well before the tricky ascent.
Action of the day belonged to Vacansoleil-DCM sprinter Romain Feillu who after a forced halt, rode inches behind the team car trying to rejoin the peloton. With the vehicle zipping along at 75km/hr, an incontent Feillu gave the rider a thumbs-up urging him to go faster! Even considering the driver was not quite as adventurous as the cyclist on slippery tarmac, hats off to the physical ability of the French rider.
Yesterday also brought the first retirement in this year’s Tour with Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Jurgen van de Walle abandoning the race, probably as an after effect of his crash early on day one. Makes the job of the remaining 197 competitors so much easier then!
Towards the end the peloton had stretched out like a freight train, though speeds were in check considering the surface conditions. Also the ‘three-kilometers rule’ was not applicable on this stage, meaning a crash at any distance would entail a damaging delay for the rider(s) involved.
Hence all top contenders were right at the fore of the pack with most spectators eyeing birthday boy Philippe Gilbert gunning for his second victory of the Tour. Sadly that was not to be as Evans and Contador out paced everyone in the final dash, with Vinokourov taking up the last podium place. Massive crowds at Mûr-de-Bretagne made this appear as a major mountain finish, and with the two big guns going elbow to elbow, this could be a tasty appetizer before the main course of the Alpine stages.
At the end of the day there were no major fluctuations in the general classifications. However the keen-eyed would have noticed the almost surreptitious climb of one of the Schlecks into the top three. Just a sign of matters heating up and riders beginning to get into their strides.
Today’s stage 5 continues east across Brittany, beginning in captivating countryside and with the latter half a scenic ride down the coast. However the peloton would not have the time to marvel on the beauty and would be more focussed on the cross-winds which will prompt echelons to form. Opportunities exist then, for a team with adequate horsepower to try to split the field. Traditionally it should be won by a sprinter, but after yesterday’s results I will refrain from making a prediction (though it may be noted that I had highlighted Evans for glory in my short preview of stage 4). So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification:
Maillot Jaune – Thor Hushovd Thor Hushovd – 13h 58’ 25”
Maillot Vert – Joaquin Jose Rojas Cadel Evans – 13h 58’ 26”
Maillot à Pois Rouges – Cadel Evans Frank Schleck – 13h 58’ 29”
Maillot Blanc – Geraint Thomas
ps: Thor Hushod apologised to Mark Cavendish over the disqualification of both riders from yesterday’s intermediate sprint. Referees penalised the riders for allegedly clashing helmets going for the line, however Hushovd claimed all responsibility for the mishap. In reply Cav tweeted “Just heard that Thor’s offered to take the punishment solely. What a true gentleman. I reckon it won’t change fuck-all though. But thank you.”