Monday, July 16, 2007

Rasmussen Leads, Vino Survives, Aussies Out

Sunday's Stage 8 of the Tour de France promised to be exciting.  With 3 category 1 climbs, including an essentially uphill finish into Tignes, it was the first major stage for the main contenders of the Tour.  Although it did not prove to be particularly decisive, it was nevertheless a stage full of fireworks. 

Michael "Chicken" Rasmussen (Rabobank), two times winner of the King of the Mountains Jersey, went on another long solo breakaway to win the stage, his third such victory in 3 years.  Attacking the peloton on the Cormet de Roselend, the first category 1 climb, he quickly bridged up to the main breakaway of the day.  From there, his pace was so strong that by the final climb, only two riders, David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) and Antonio Colom (Astana), were able to hold his wheel.  Not for long, though, as Rasmussen accelerated with 18km to go at the bottom of the final climb of Tignes to drop them.  Flying all the way to the top, he ended up winning the stage by nearly 3 minutes ahead of 2nd placed Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval).  As a result, he claimed the maillot jaune as leader of the Tour de France, in addition to the stage victory and the lead in the King of the Mountains jersey.  The Danish climber now sits 43" ahead of previous leader Linus Gerdemann, who lost 5 minutes on the stage, and is more than two and a half minutes ahead of everyone else.

The other major storyline in yesterday's stage was how well Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden would recover from their injuries and if they could still keep pace with the other GC contenders.  At the bottom of the final climb, they appeared to be in trouble as 7 big name riders, Christophe Moreau, Alejandro Valverde, Andrey Kashechkin, Frank Schleck, Alberto Contador, Iban Mayo, and Cadel Evans broke free from the main peloton and formed their own group.  Moreau in particular looked to be pretty strong, attacking time after time in an attempt to further disintegrate the group.  At one point, they were over a minute ahead of the Astana duo plus other big name riders such as Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, and Levi Leipheimer.  However, they were unable to press their advantage as the riders refused to work together and lost their momentum.  Even as Vino began to crack in the final kilometers, he was able to limit his losses to only 1'20 due largely to the excellent work done by Kloden, who pulled the Kazakh for the final 8km and ignoring his own chances.  Thus, heading into the rest day, Vino is still only down by 2 and a half minutes on the other main GC contenders besides Rasmussen.  With the rest day, followed by what should be a couple of non-decisive stages, he is still alive in this year's Tour.  The other riders may have made a mistake in not working together more and pressing their advantage over Vino while he was down.  We will see in a week's time whether or not this stage will come back to haunt the other riders.

The saddest element of yesterday's stage, though, had to be the horrible luck endured by the Australian contigent at the Tour de France.  The most tragic was that of Michael Rogers.  At one point during the stage, the leader of the T-Mobile Team was well placed in the day's breakaway, climbing well, and in with a great chance of claiming yellow by days end.  However, on the descent of the Roselend, he crashed coming around a corner.  Although initially appearing to be alright, he immediately was in trouble as soon as the road went back uphill.  Unable to hold the breakaway's pace, he quickly went backward, eventually getting passed by the peloton some 4 minutes behind Rasmussen in a very short amount of time.  It was clear that he was not in good shape, and soon afterwards he stopped for good and abandoned the Tour with a suspected dislocated shoulder.  T-Mobile, having been in a great position earlier on with Gerdemann in yellow and Rogers up the road, found itself by the end out of yellow and without its team leader. 

In another crash concerning an Australian, Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) went down for a second time this Tour.  This time, though, it was more serious as he was taken away on a stretcher into an ambulance with a reported 8 ribs broken and a punctured lung.  Finally, to complete a miserable day, sprint ace Robbie McEwen missed the time cut after finishing over an hour behind Rasmussen.  Still clearly bothered by his knee that he injured in stage 1, McEwen had no power left to climb mountains and is now out of the Tour as well.

Although the stage didn't produce significant time gaps between the main GC contenders, it did provide several interesting points of interest.  Of all the riders, Christophe Moreau appeared to be the strongest.  He attacked at least a half a dozen times, though none of which turned out to be successful.  While certainly on the form of his life, one has to wonder whether or not he is burning too many matches too early in this year's Tour de France without much gain.  Either way, it is great to see him riding with such confidence and form.

Another interesting observation was the teams who had their leaders down the road from their teammates.  For both Team CSC and Discovery Channel, their two designated leaders, Carlos Sastre and Levi Leipheimer, were in the group with Vinokourov and Kloden while their teammates, Frank Schleck and Alberto Contador respectively, were up the road in the Moreau group.  It will be interesting to see if there is any change in leadership in the future stages if it's determined that the other riders are going faster than their leader. 

Finally, any question of infighting over team leadership in the Astana team were put to bed.  Kloden was definitely the stronger of the two riders, but he pulled for Vino during the finale of the stage and even waited for him when Vino began to have difficulty.  There is no question that Kloden lost some time helping Vinokourov, showing that Kloden is at the Tour de France to support his team captain even at the expense of his own ambitions.

Today is a rest day in the Tour de France and a welcome one at that.  The riders will be glad to have an opportunity to rest their aches and bruises for a day and recover from their first week's efforts.


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