St 3: Robbie in yellow, Mayo in 'Hell'
Quite a day, as Nazon takes the stage, McEwen takes the lead, and Iban Mayo takes a tumble and falls
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Much had been said before the start of this stage about how some of the specialist climbers would cope with the two sections of Paris-Roubaix pav, with Iban Mayo being singled out as the potential fall guy. Although Mayo does have experience of the cobbles from his first year with Euskaltel, his re-acquaintance with just two sections from the ‘Hell of the North’ proved enough to leave his nascent challenge for the Tour title in tatters. In fact, the huge dent in Mayo’s Tour chances was not done on the cobbles, but in the mad fight for position in the bunch during the kilometres immediately before the 2,800-metre section of ‘Hell’ at Erre. All of the major contenders’ teams tried to get their leaders up to the front and hopefully out of trouble. As everyone tussled, a huge pile-up occurred when someone hit the deck, and Mayo was among those halted. Initally, it seemed the damage would be temporary. But as Mayo’s rivals got on with chasing down stage leaders Jens Voigt and Bram de Groot, the Basque’s Euskaltel team-mates found themselves undertaking a team time trial a day before they were ready for it and in extremely hostile territory. As Lance Armstrong sailed through the cobbles in the wake of George Hincapie and Slava Ekimov, with Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton not too far behind him, Mayo saw his Tour prospects disappearing into the dust. To be fair to Mayo, he was far from the only notable name to be caught out. Yellow jersey Thor Hushovd was also stranded, as were Denis Menchov, Haimar Zubeldia, David Moncouti, Michael Rogers and, almost right at the back of the race, Juan Miguel Mercado. All of this highly rated riders eventually lost at least 3-53 as Armstrong, Ullrich, Hamilton and their team-mates rubbed in their advantage. Huge credit should go to Armstrong’s team-mates for not only keeping him out of trouble, but increasing his advantage to the greatest extent possible. In this they were helped by Phonak, CSC and T-Mobile. Voigt and de Groot were soon swept up, and the second section of pav was negotiated safely by most, although classics specialists Stuart O’Grady and Magnus Backstedt went down and were then held up at a railway crossing. The 90-strong front group was once again led towards the finish by Fassa Bortolo, but lacking Alessandro Petacchi the Italian team did not feature. Instead Gerolsteiner took over the pace-making in the final kilometre for Danilo Hondo. When the German went, Ag2r’s Jean-Patrick Nazon took off after him, pursued by Erik Zabel. Then, from a long way back, came the green jersey of Robbie McEwen. Hondo faded back towards the pack and it seemed for a moment that McEwen had judged the slightly uphill run to perfection. But Nazon held on in front of Zabel, with the Aussie third. However, the eight seconds McEwen took on the line added to the two won at the first sprint of the day vaulted him over Fabian Cancellara and made him the inheritor of Hushovd’s yellow jersey. His stay in yellow is only likely to last to end of tomorrow’s team time trial, when the real contenders should step forward and Mayo could find himself slipping even further into the background.