Bruised peloton undertakes its longest day
Hills, no matter what their difficulty, could be embraced by a hurting Tour de France peloton over the next two days as the race prepares to leave the flat plains of northern France and Belgium.
After three days of hectic bunch sprints, amazingly only two riders from the 189 strong peloton have been forced out through injury.
But after the drama was brought to a climax by the mass pile-up inside the final two kilometres of Monday’s stage in Ghent, the groans were palpable on Tuesday morning.
American George Hincapie, who rides for the Discovery Channel team of yellow jersey contender Levi Leipheimer, was among the riders who braved getting back on the saddle despite hurting in more places than one. He began the stage with a banged-up knee after failing to avoid the mayhem in the Belgian city.
“I hit it pretty hard,” said the big New Yorker, who appeared stunned after a stage which took a more telling toll on his team. Discovery’s Lithuanian sprinter Tomas Vaitkus departed the race Monday night after being pushed up against the barriers and fracturing his thumb in five places.
Race leader Fabian Cancellara was also among the battered and bruised, and the Swiss rider – a crucial element for CSC’s bid to get Carlos Sastre in the yellow jersey – was lucky not to come off worse.
Today’s stage of 230km between Waregem in Belgium and Compiegne is the longest of the race and is again expected to finish in a bunch sprint on the 1.05km long home straight.
Wednesday and Thursday’s stages, however, will introduce a few small climbs, and potentially tricky finishes which could conspire to end all possibility of another bunch sprint.
Two short climbs inside the first 65km of Wednesday’s stage from Viller-Cotterets to Joigny could give ideas to more than one breakaway hopeful, although the stage’s two other climbs, 49km from the finish but which succeed one another quickly, could prove the key to the stage win.
A breakaway has yet to succeed on the race, and race planner Jean-Francois Pescheux believes a bunch sprint cannot be ruled out.
“This should make for an interesting stage, with lots of action, but it should pretty much all come back together towards the finish, as the last six kilometres are on the main road to Joigny,” he said.
“This may well end up as another showdown between the sprinters.”
The sprinters, though, will have definitely waving goodbye to their time in the spotlight by then.
Thursday’s stage seems a deliberate attempt by new Tour director Christian Prudhomme to incite a mini riot. No less than eight categorised climbs feature on the 182.5 km ride through Burgundy from Chablis to Autun, after which the peloton will be forced to start thinking about getting their real climbing legs ready for two days later.
Breakaways are a certainty, but above all this stage is going to test the tactical nous of the teams with yellow jersey contenders. The riders wily and audacious enough to try their hand at attacking will be looking at the Haut Folin climb 47km from the finish.
At 12km, it is by far the longest of the day, and while it could be just too tempting to resist it will be followed by an enticing final, 3km climb only eight kilometres from the finish.