By Hedwig Kröner in Karlsruhe
"My legs aren't turning like they should," Gerolsteiner's Fabian Wegmann told Cyclingnews at the start of stage seven in Lunéville. "When it's cold and raining like it this, I'm in trouble."
But the youngster is fearless, and one could sense that he was concentrating on the task ahead: getting into a breakaway, for the sake of a ride onto home turf - and the polka-dot jersey, which he knew was within reach. "It's a dream come true, really. I said it to my teammates yesterday: standing on the podium and hearing that music, that's the greatest," he described the moments spent at the famous 'cérémonie protocolaire', which uses its own distinctive tune when a rider is about to being honoured.
The strategy of his team proved to be just the right one: Get somebody in a break, or count on their sprinter for the finish. And although Robert Förster finished only 13th, the squad can be happy with its achievements in Germany: Precious TV time for Gerolsteiner, the dotted jersey and the award of most combative rider were all theirs - contrary to T-Mobile, who did not put their colours up front for obvious tactical reasons.
Although Wegmann's move wasn't calculated to be a lone one, he decided to continue when McEwen waited for the bunch to come back on him after the first climb. "The gap wasn't very big on top of that climb, but when McEwen joined me we made some time on the descent," he said. "But he didn't want to ride with me - as there was nobody coming behind us he just stopped riding eventually, wishing me luck. The gap was there so I just continued full speed, to get that one last point for the jersey."
The solitary ride was long, longer than expected (160 km), but the 25 year-old was rewarded by a frenetic crowd as he crossed the border to his home country: the sheer amount of spectators was overwhelming, making a huge difference with the neighbouring Alsace region. The "Tourfieber" - the country's fever for the Tour de France - is well known by the French organiser ASO, which is one of he reasons why the race frequently drops in. Crowds had gathered since noon on the borders of the parcours, and when Wegmann entered German territory his lead was still nearly four minutes. And although he knew that he wasn't going to take it into the finish, Wegmann is the fourth German rider to slip into the polka-dot. Marcel Wüst, Jens Voigt and Rolf Aldag did it before him, but couldn't defend it. Will Wegmann, who has proven to be mountain-worthy by winning the homologous jersey in the Giro d'Italia in 2004, be a successor to Richard Virenque?
"I'm pretty kaput now, and I'll have to see how I feel," he cautiously said after the race. "Of course I'd like to keep the jersey until the end, but tomorrow we have four climbs in the first part of the stage. And after today, I definitely won't be as fresh so it will be hard to defend it."
Meanwhile, his directeur sportif Christian Henn told Cylingnews after the stage, "We'll have to try to defend it tomorrow. But once the real mountains come, it will be hard. Compared to the Giro, you don't escape the peloton as easily, because a lot of teams will try for it. Plus, tomorrow the race won't be as controlled by the sprinters' teams as today, because there's the Col de la Schlucht right before the finish."
So one question was obvious: Did Wegmann bluff by saying his legs weren't good this morning? You can't tell, as he happily laughed, replying, "No, I didn't..." It's a hard race, especially since "there has been a lot of tailwind lately, so it was harder riding within the bunch, even harder than with a headwind," Henn concluded.