Sunday, July 22, 2007

He's Back!  Vino Wins Time Trial

For Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), the last week had been one to forget.  As a result of a stage 5 crash, he had fallen from Tour de France favorite to being on the verge of abandonment, sitting over 8 minutes behind the yellow jersey.  To many it appeared that this would not be the 33 year old's year; that he was too battered, bruised, and simply too far behind to possibly get back into the race.

But to not expect Vino to make a comeback, to keep fighting, is to not understand his personality as a rider.  After all, he does not have the reputation of being one of the toughest, most feared riders in the peloton for nothing.  He famously said once, "when I feel good, I attack.  When I feel bad, I attack."  It was not a matter of if Vino would comeback, it was a matter of how and when.

Thursday's Stage 11 hinted at what was to come.  Astana's tactics of splitting the peloton and Vino's subsequent surprise attack with 4km to go indicated that he was on the mend and ready to break loose.  Yesterday, that moment arrived.  Vino took out a week's worth of pain, anger, and frustration on a 54km individual time trial around Albi to hammer his rivals and pull himself back into contention in this year's Tour de France.  He finished with a time of 1.06'34, 1'14 ahead of the next rider Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto).  More importantly, he took out almost 3 minutes on every other rider on GC, including massive 6 minute beatings of both Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi).  

Vino's ride was even more impressive when considering how he did it.  Vino had to deal with wet, slick roads during his ride compared to drier roads that the other GC contenders faced at the end of the stage.  As a result, he went extremely cautiously down a very technical 5km descent during the middle of the stage, costing him valuable time.  Still, he managed to blow away all of the times of the other riders.  He now sits 9th on GC, moving up 10 spots from 19th at the start of the stage.  He is 5 minutes back on leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and within striking distance of all of the other GC contenders.  Furthermore, having found his legs, he has promised to attack in the upcoming stages in the Pyrenees, news that other riders will definitely not want to hear.  Hopefully he will create further fireworks and drama in the coming days.

The day's other big hero was Rasmussen.  Unfairly written off by many still remembering his disaster of a final time trial in 2005, he showed fine resistance in finishing the stage in 11th place.  Having never ridden (or needed to have ridden) a good time trial before, he nevertheless used the magic of being a yellow jersey wearer to hold onto his advantage.  Although he lost 3 minutes to Vinokourov, he still has a 5 minute lead left intact and is ahead of everyone else by at least a minute heading into the Pyrenees.  He even managed to catch and blow by Valverde, a most unexpected image considering many predicted Valverde to be the next yellow jersey holder.  All of a sudden, Rasmussen has become a serious contender for this year's Tour de France.

For Team Astana, yesterday's time trial was another demonstration of their superiority.  In addition to Vinokourov's efforts, both Andreas Kloden and Andrey Kashechkin finished in the top 4, finishing 3rd and 4th respectively.  This was all the more remarkable considering both men overcame crashes during the stage.  As a result, Astana now has 3 men inside the top 9 on GC and will have plenty of cards to play heading into the crucial upcoming mountain stages.  Another big winner was Evans.  His 2nd place finish on the stage means that he now also sits in 2nd place overall on GC, 1 minute behind Rasmussen.  It's an ideal scenario for Evans, who probably doesn't have the team to defend the yellow jersey from now all the way to Paris.  He can now wait patiently in the wings for his next opportunity without too much pressure on his shoulders.

The biggest losers on the day were the Spanish climbers Mayo and Valverde.  Although Mayo has never been a great time trialist, 6 minutes is still a large chunk of time to lose and will be extremely difficult to make up for a podium place.  Most expected Valverde, on the other hand, to put in a solid performance.  Although he is not a specialist, he has made significant improvements in the discipline in the last couple of years.  This makes his 6 minute loss all the more surprising/disappointing.  Another rider to produce a disappointing result was Christophe Moreau (AG2R).  Considered a contender for the overall victory only a couple of days ago, he finished in 125 place almost 9'30 behind Vinokourov.  He is now out of the running for a podium place in Paris.

Crash/Abandon Notes Stage 13: No abandons or riders outside the time limit to report.  However, there were plenty of crashes that occurred.  Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), the world time trial champion, crashed rather hard coming out of a tunnel.  Running in the top placings at the time, he ended up losing all momentum and finished in 107th place.  As mentioned above, both Andreas Kloden and Andrey Kashechkin of Astana also crashed.  Both riders appeared to be ok however and quickly got back on their bikes, although Kloden crossed the finish line with blood visible on his knee.  Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) crashed going around a roundabout and slammed over a curb, a rather dramatic looking crash.  He quickly got up, though, and finished in 12th place.  His teammate, Yaroslav Popovych, also crashed.  Although tv cameras didn't catch it, his ripped shorts on his right side gave it away.  Nevertheless, he managed to finish a strong 6th on the stage.  Apparently, crashing yesterday, apart from Cancellera, meant that a rider was going to post a good result.  Maybe more riders should have tried that, although judging by the way Vino took no risks during the stage, he was not an eager volunteer.


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