George Hincapie may not be the most expansive talker but there are certain people who say it best when they say nothing at all. So it was this afternoon in La Grande Motte as Hincapie was asked whether he’d tipped off his old pal Lance Armstrong about his Columbia-HTC team’s attack across the marshes of the Carmague.
After several seconds of either embarrassed, confused or angry silence, Hincapie finally answered. All he’d admit was that he knew Armstrong was close by when the hammer went down.
A brief recap for those who missed an hour of spine-tingling sport: 31 kilometres from the finish-line, the road kinked, the wind gusted and all nine Columbia riders accelerated. The peloton fractured. Armstrong reacted. Much faster than his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, who would spend the rest of the stage craning his neck like one of the autograph hunters who lay siege to the Astana bus every morning.
Contador needn’t have bothered: the next time he would see Armstrong was when the race had already finished. You guessed, on the Astana team bus.
Did Hincapie really give Armstrong the secret signal? Or could it have been Lance’s new mate Cavendish? Whatever scheming went on, no one was likely to tell the press. Cavendish said there was no premeditation. He even went so far as to accuse those who missed the split of “racing like juniors”. Contador will feel suitably chastised. Or perhaps just furious that Astana are so obviously hedging their bets.
Hincapie and Armstrong during the Tour of California pre-race press conference in Sacramento, California
In the final ten kilometres of the stage, Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslaw Popovych both helped to lead a charge which has taken Armstrong to within 40 seconds of Fabian Cancellara’s yellow jersey – and 19 seconds clear of Contador on general classification.
“You know what the wind’s doing, you know what’s coming up. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” said Armstrong tonight in what sounded like a thinly veiled criticism of Contador. Or was it just Lance underlining the fact that it didn’t need some evil ruse for him to be in the first twenty positions at the crucial moment?
“It wasn’t my objective [to leave Alberto behind]. We also didn’t ride for a long time, then we put the guys on the front in the last 10 kilometres,” Armstrong protested. “Why wouldn’t we ride? I’ve won the Tour de France seven times… It’s good positioning and experience. That and a bit of luck. Just before the corner where it happened, I decided that I was going to move up.
“Columbia were on the front chasing the break, they turned saw the wind, then accelerated,” he continued. “It wasn’t an ambush. They were already there. It was an acceleration.”
Unsurprisingly, Astana boss Johan Bruyneel’s version of events tallied with Armstrong's. Bruyneel said that they expected trouble on a stage which was similar in route and outcome to the Tour’s last visit to the Carmague two years ago.
“Today’s stage and the one after tomorrow were always going to be dangerous," Bruyneel said. "During the stage it became clear that it was not as dangerous as we thought then, at an unexpected moment, the bunch split and we had three guys up there."
Bruyneel conceded only that it wasn’t “normal that all of the favourites were surprised”. “Normal” can have many meanings. He didn’t specify which one applied here. As he said, we all knew this was a potentially difficult stage. That’s right, even us journalists. But apparently no one told Contador.
One colleague in the pressroom tonight said that this Tour and today’s stage already carried echoes of Bernard Hinault’s “inside job” on Greg LeMond in 1986. Being too young to recall that Tour (!), I asked my fellow hack what he meant and he explained that Hinault went through that race stealing seconds like loose change out of his grandma’s purse.
“It’s going to be the same with Armstrong and Contador!” he said, looking like Burt Ward’s Boy Wonder in the old Batman and Robin 1960s television series, raising an exclamatory finger. “It’s 1986 all over again!”
I don’t know about that, but if the next three weeks are half as entertaining as the last hour of today’s stage, I for one won’t be complaining.
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