Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cancellara Steals the Show

Yesterday's stage 3 of the Tour de France finally answered the riddle "how does the maillot jaune of the Tour, one who is not a sprinter, win a flat stage on the open road?"  The answer: a mistimed catch of the day's breakaway, a complete disorganization on the front of the peloton, and a well timed attack by an opportunistic/extremely gifted rider.  All 3 factors occurred yesterday as Fabian Cancellara surprised everyone by launching an attack with 700 meters to go, just before the peloton made contact with the remnants of a 4 man breakaway, and held off the sprinters to win his second stage of the Tour.  Of course, his first stage victory came in his blazing opening prologue time trial.  This one, though, was just as spectacular, if not more so.

On the longest stage of the Tour, such fireworks did not appear to be on the horizon after a rather monotonous opening to the stage.  With 100km to go, the peloton was only 4 minutes behind a 2 man breakaway of Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel) and Mathieu Ladagnous (FD Jeux).  The situation appeared to be quite straightforward as the peloton only had to choose when to make the final catch.  Surely a 2 man breakaway could not hold off the peloton if they turned on the gas.

The situation changed, however, when with 60km to go another 2 riders, Stephane Auge (Cofidis) and Frederik Willems (Liquigas), broke away from the peloton and quickly joined up with the other two riders to form a four man group.  Auge was motivated to claim the king of the mountains jersey, one that he was tied on points with David Millar.  With the only climb of the day being a category 4 climb 34km from the finish, Auge's attack meant that he successfully crossed the climb to earn the polka dot jersey.  The greater significance, however, was that the peloton had not made any serious inroads into the gap and now had to deal with a 4 man group instead of 2.  A desperate chase ensued, though the breakaway still had a chance to stay away with 2km to go. 

Under the 1km banner, the breakaway had a slim margin as the front of the peloton exploded from its effort.  Cancellara, who had been up until this point staying up front to stay out of trouble, saw an opportunity and launched an attack.  Quickly catching and passing the breakaway, he then used every ounce of time trialing skill he had to hold off the hard charging peloton and just beat Erik Zabel (Milram) to take the victory.  It was certainly an odd sight to see the maillot jaune soloing up to the finish line ahead of the sprinters.  Still, the fact that he held off the rest of the sprinters for the final kilometer was quite an impressive show of strength that few other riders could have emulated.


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