I’ll always remember the last time the Tour visited this town. It was 2002, Thor Hushovd won the stage in a breakaway and proceeded to give a press conference so monotone and singularly devoid of insight that one colleague walked out in disgust.
The same day, I recall, my esteemed friend and press-room doyen Sam Abt of the International Herald Tribune was in raptures about the local gastromony, especially the chicken for which Bourg en Bresse is famous. I’ve just found Sam’s race report from that day. The chooks only got one line in his story, but Sam, bless him, talked about little else all day.
The abundance of finest Bresse fillets at today’s buffet and Bradley Wiggins’s 18-minute lead (yes, 18 minutes!) 110km into today’s 6th stage mean that this is shaping up as a Friday 13th with a positive twist. I doubt the Wigg will make it, but you can’t fault him wanting to honour on the 40th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s with such a flourish. If only Tour organisers ASO had done their bit by taking the race to the scene of Mister Tom’s death, the Mont Ventoux.
I must say that I was surprised to see Andreas Kloeden at the startline this morning. The German was diagnosed with a hairline fracture of the coccyx after his fall on yesterday’s stage to Autun, but is determined to grit his teeth through the pain. Astana boss Marc Biver admitted on Friday morning that Kloeden “was hurting a lot” and felt “very low”.
Quite weird, but a more encouraging second opinion came from an independent source, Tour doctor Gerard Porte. Porte said “there isn’t necessarily any reason why he can’t carry on. We just have to see what pain he’s feeling. The nature of the pain will determine whether he can carry on or not”.
One man who definitely won’t be ducking out early – at least not on account of the odd inch-deep gash or ten – is Alex Vinokourov. Biver said this morning that he’d “never seen any sportsman so badly hurt and so unfazed by it”. “Vino has extraordinary character and that might just save him,” Biver added.
I tend to agree with the Astana boss – Vino’s woes could spell trouble for his rivals. OK there’s the small matter of one minute 20 seconds that he lost yesterday, but in the same way that Lance Armstrong used to thrive on adversity, I imagine the Kazakh relishing this challenge. It’s not only a coach/slash/guru that Lance and Vino have in common.
Vinokourov’s fire had already been stoked by that now infamous press conference in London on the eve of the Tour. If Sastre, Menchov, Schleck and Co suffer a Vino-KO over the next two weeks, they might have to blame Sunday Times journalist Paul Kimmage and the encounter described here by ESPN’s Bonnie de Simoine. Some riders would fold under this kind of pressure; for Armstrong and Vinokourov, that pressure is like lighter fuel.
Kloeden has always been a different, much more fragile animal. As for Andrey Kashechkin, who some pundits were today talking up as a valid plan C, it’s not so much his mental fortitude that I’d question as his talent. Kashechkin has ridden the Tour just once, in 2005, when he finished in 19 th place. Even with two years more experience and a nicely tuned Ferrari-engine (Michele, that is), it’s a big jump from there even to make the top five.
No doubt that some of the suspense will be over tomorrow when we hit the Alps. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.