Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stage 3 - Le Tour 2006 - the Cauberg

Stage 3 hit its first major test - the Cauberg. The parcours was tough but fair, and most of the sprinters were still there with a chance until the final charge to the line. Again Kessler took advantage of the late-stage terrain and took a flyer up the climb, this time successfully. More surprisingly Boonen was unable to finish off for 2nd, leaving Rogers to take to the podium with a 1-2 for T-Mobile. The uphill nature of the finish was enough to slow Boonen and to put a gap back to Hushovd and particularly McEwen. The time gap was enough to put the GC into its first significant, if small, spin.

It was a race also of casualties, most significantly being GC contender Valverde out with a suspected broken collar bone. O'Grady also lost plenty of time after a fall.

But there are still 75 riders inside a minute of the overall lead. Mountain goats such Cunego (1 minute back) and Rasmussen (1m 07 secs) remain well in contention, if slightly forgotten by the highly credentialled yet somewhat inanely prattling TV commentators. What's a minute in the Alps? These riders - and several more - will bide their time and not waste energy. When the climbs come they will sniff out weaknesses and put the real pressure on when it counts. We will then be dealing in minutes between riders, not seconds. It's a game of patience and picking the time and the right mountain to attack.

Anyway, we now have Sprint King Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step-Innergetic in the yellow jersey with Aussie Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile just 1 sec behind. Rogers could expect to take yellow later, probably in a TT or on a climb in a week's time. George Hincapie (USA) Discovery Channel is next, 5 secs back, and would be pinning his hopes again on a climb to come. Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole is at 7secs and wouldn't expect to win yellow back unless Boonen falters badly in the remaining sprints. Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Discovery Channel is next - a proven Grand Tour winner - and a top contender at just 15secs.

Of the rest we see Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak, Serguei Gonchar (Ukr) T-Mobile and Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto all within a mere 20secs of yellow. Cadel in particular is a steep road climber who can put real gaps into the other GC contenders, so he's very well placed. Salvodelli would hang in there and catch up on the descents, but could Hincapie? That's an interesting battle to come. Also in that same battle will be the likes of proven GC rider Andreas Klöden (Ger) T-Mobile, Bobby Julich (USA) Team CSC, Yaroslav Popovyvch (Ukr) Discovery Channel, and Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner. All are clustered between 20 and 30 secs back and all are top GC contenders.

It's too early to discount anyone, really. Climber José Azevedo (Por) Discovery Channel is just 31secs back (and sprinter Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto is at 32secs now, so unlikely to get yellow from here). Similarly Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi and Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saunier Duval are climbers of note capable of taking time out from anyone on their day. Others lurking in the background include Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas, José Luis Rubiera (Spa) Discovery Channel, Mikel Astarloza (Spa) AG2R-Prevoyance, José Rujano (Ven) Quick-Step-Innergetic, Iban Mayo (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi and the previously mentioned Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital and Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank.

That's 84 riders inside of 1m.07secs. It's crowded at the top.

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