A little trompe l'œil

By Dan Friebe | Tuesday, July 10, 2007 11.00pm

The Tour is always fertile ground for conspiracy theories, but today's start village in Villers-Cotterets was especially fruitful. It seems that an average speed of under 40kph is all it takes these days to spawn enough speculation to fill a UFO symposium.

My personal favourite was the idea that, so disgruntled was the peloton with the media's doping fixation, they deliberately slowed down to make us all miss our deadline on yesterday's stage from Waregem to Compiègne.

Yeah, right, and Elvis is still alive and following the Tour as a Bouygues Telecom soigneur.

Talking of soigneurs, there was another peach of a rumour that the man who once fulfilled that role at Telekom and Française des Jeux, Jeff d'Hont, was the motive for the go-slow. Apparently someone in the bunch had got wind of d'Hont's visit to the FDJ hotel on Monday night and wanted to manifest their discontent. You'll probably all remember that d'Hont is the man whose memoirs incriminated a large slice of the Telekom team of the 1990s when they were published this spring.

Always game for a bit of intrigue, this morning in Villers-Cotterets I asked Saunier Duval directeur sportif Matxin Fernandez if there could be some truth to the d'Hont interpretation. Matxin chuckled as you chuckle when your kid asks if Father Christmas really does come down the chimney, put a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then proceeded to clinically disabuse me of any notion that I might actually be onto something.

"I don't even know what Jeff d'Hont looks like," he said. "The simple fact is that yesterday's stage was long and dull, with nothing to break it up and no incentive for anyone to ride really hard behind [Matthieu] Ladagnous and [Nicolas] Vogondy...It was all normal, normalissimo. The only unusual thing about the stage was that Ladagnous and Vogondy were very smart; when the gap got so big that they thought the peloton might start fretting, they put it in the small ring and started soft pedalling to lull the bunch into a false sense of security. If they almost made it to the finish, it's for that reason - they were smart and they also saved plenty of energy for the last 40km."

Matxin, I reckon, was spot on. The only question I have now is why riders don't attempt the same tactic as Ladagnous and Vogondy more often, or if they do try, why is their execution rarely so skilful. Yesterday's stage exemplified how the peloton and a breakaway group are the mirror images of each other: one takes the foot off the gas and the other does too, one speeds up and the other does likewise. Consequently the only way the break can succeed is by playing a little trompe l'œil - a game of deception, i.e. beating the peloton's brawn with a little bit of grey matter.

Compiègne-gate apart, today's start village was pretty quiet on the gossip-front. I grabbed a quick word with Mark Cavendish, who says that he'll try his best not to clock up any more crashes or fits of pique before the end of the week. Cavendish fell on stages one and two and wasn't a happy bunny as he crossed the line on both days. He also contrived to get through two pairs of Oakley sunglasses - one tea-leafed by a fan after his crash en route to Canterbury and one smashed on the run-in to Gent.

We told Cavendish we'd look out for pair one on Ebay. If anyone else comes across them, you know the address.

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