Friday, July 20, 2007

Moreau Loses Time, Hunter Wins

About halfway through yesterday's flat stage, things were going according to plan.  A breakaway was 5 minutes up the road, the peloton was cruising, and everything was calm.  It looked to be a typical transition day in the Tour de France that would probably end up in a bunch sprint.

However, a change of winds along the road, and all of a sudden the Tour de France came alive.  Team Astana, under the direction of battered Tour favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, hit the front of the peloton with 70km to go under increasing crosswinds.  Hammering the pace, they attempted to split the peloton to try to catch out any of the other Tour de France favorites.  Sure enough, the peloton split into 3 groups, with France's hope Christophe Moreau (AG2R) caught up in the second group.  A desperate chase ensued, with Moreau's teammates attempting to pull him back into the race.  It was all for naught, however, as the front peloton kept pulling away.  By the end of the stage, Moreau lost 3'20 on all the other GC favorites.  Moreau now sits 14th on GC, 6'38 behind the maillot jaune of Michael Rasmussen.

The fireworks of the stage were still not over.  Astana's efforts meant that the breakaway was wiped away rather quickly, leaving a front group of about 80 riders to battle out the stage victory.  Then, with 4km to go, Vinokourov launched a surprise attack, causing panic in the peloton.  Although the attack was pulled back 1 kilometer later, it indicated that he is feeling much better and might have recovered in time for the Pyrenees next week.

Into the final kilometer, and Tom Boonen (Quick Step) was the big favorite for the sprint, having made the front group in the split.  Other sprinters in the front group were Robbie Hunter, Fast Freddie Rodriguez, and Julian Dean, while big names such as Thor Hushovd, Erik Zabel, and Daniele Bennati were left behind in the second peloton.  However, the finishing approach was anything but direct as a series of rounded curves made for a dangerous finish.  Sure enough, with about 700 meters to go, a rider went around a curve and caused a crash, hitting Rodriguez and Dean while Boonen was also slowed.  It was an unfortunate break for Boonen, both for the stage victory itself and the likely huge points gain in the green jersey competition over Zabel. 

The only sprinter who was not hit by the crash was Robbie Hunter (Barloworld), who used his advantage to sprint to his first ever stage victory in the Tour de France.  Hunter managed to just hold off previous Maillot Jaune holder Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), who surprisingly almost sprinted his way to his third stage victory of this year's Tour.  Hunter's stage win was the second for Team Barloworld, a wild-card entry this year who have been having a great Tour de France.

Today's stage has one major bump, a category 2 climb that comes 50km from the finish.  With an important 54km individual time trial coming up tomorrow, watch for most of the main riders to rest today and for a breakaway to get away.  Alternatively, if the sprinters can get over the climb, then there may be a bunch sprint.  If yesterday has taught us anything, it's that the Tour de France can be extremely unpredictable.


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