Too slow for Petacchi?

Another bad day for Alessandro Petacchi may also have cost team-mate Fabian Cancellara's yellow jers

Another bad day for Alessandro Petacchi may also have cost team-mate Fabian Cancellara’s yellow jers

To most sprinters, two consecutive defeats in Tour de France stages would be a matter of regrettable routine. Alessandro Petacchi is not most Tour de France sprinters. Such is the Italian’s familiarity with the sweet smell of the winner’s bouquet and podium girl’s cologne, that to be without a win after three days in a major tour is a major disappointment. Should Petacchi’s barren spell extend to four days, talk of a minor disaster would be rife. For half-hour following his latest enigmatic display in Namur, where the Italian was boxed into a distant eighth position behind stage winner Robbie McEwen, Petacchi preferred his own introspection in the Fassa Bortolo team bus to another media cross-examination. When the door finally creaked open at 6.30, Petacchi was relieved to find not the usual morass of microphones, but just a tiny handful of journalists eager to know, quite simply, what had gone wrong. Deflated but not disillusioned, Petacchi sat down in the doorway and tried to find his own explanation. “Robbie did a very good sprint: he effectively did what I did two or three times last year. The speed wasn’t very high in the last kilometre, that was the problem,” Petacchi, the recent winner of nine stages in the Giro d’Italia, explained. “I’m sorry because I felt better than yesterday. What makes me sad is that I didn’t even do the sprint. Had I done the sprint, I would have an idea of where my form is in relation to the others. Losing it without having even taken part is particularly annoying, especially having worked so hard all day. Had I finished second, I might also have denied Hushovd the bonus seconds which ultimately cost my team-mate, Fabian [Cancellara], his yellow jersey.” Petacchi’s fortunes on the Tour’s three-day stint in Belgium have contrasted starkly with his crushing, almost unprecedented domination at the Giro. They are also bound to prompt questions about whether he can hit the same heights at the Tour. Or whether his form has dwindled since the end of May? Petacchi believes that this doubters are wrong on both counts: “It’s not that I am lacking the spark I had at the Giro: had I been in the same position as McEwen today, I would have done the same thing as him. The problem at the moment is that the speed in the bunch isn’t high, so whoever accelerates from the front has an advantage. That’s not to detract from McEwen, who held on well. “I feel like I have good legs – much better than last year at the Tour. And then I won four stages,” Petacchi continued. “Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been able to sprint like I did then. Last year I was struggling all the time so I tended to jump early from the wheels to try to catch the others by surprise. This time I’ve tried to do what I did at the Giro – lead from the front, which also should minimise the risk of a fall. As it has turned out I’ve almost fallen several times: today I took a lot of shoulder barges and touched my team-mate, Marco Velo’s wheel four times. The other sprinters kept trying to take my wheel and almost taking me down with them. It was very nervous, and that certainly didn’t help me.” Fearful, almost haunted by the dangerous nature of the sprints in the first week of the Tour, it won’t take many more defeats before commentators start diagnosing Petacchi with a “mental block.” Puffing on a therapeutic cigarette by the Fassa Bortolo bus, team manager Giancarlo Ferretti tended to reject this notion last night. “If it is a question of that, let’s hope he unblocks himself soon,” barked the veteran team boss. ALL PICTURES BY TIM DE WAELE