By Jean-François Quénet in Canterbury, England
They all say sprinters need confidence, a fact that Thor Hushovd has admitted to being nervous about, having not posted any victories this season. At 29, he keeps trying to improve both his sprinting abilities and his strength for the classics. "Usually, I collected good results in February even though I didn't peak for the early season," he explained. This year, he skipped the first races in the South of France on purpose, and did not return to Australia for the Tour Down Under, even though he enjoyed it a lot in 2006.
He resumed racing at the Tour of California at the end of February and realized there were new sprinters coming up, like CSC's 'JJ' Haedo, who won two stages in the race in the Western United States.
Last year he got his first win at Tirreno-Adriatico, but he didn't repeat it this year. "I spent the whole early season building up for Milan-San Remo, that was my biggest goal for the Spring," said the 2006 winner of Gent-Wevelgem, who wanted to go one step ahead in the quality of his classics record book. But he got sick the night before the Classicissima, suffering stomach troubles and never came back with his full capacities for the Northern classics.
After his usual break in his Norwegian home of Grimstad, on the south coast of the Scandinavian country, he resumed racing at the Giro, where he was twice second but never won before pulling out in Briançon, as planned. "I chose to do the Giro because I wasn't used to sprint against the world's best sprinters before the Tour and I wanted to arrive at the Tour at my best", he explained.
Instead of winning one bunch sprint at the Four Days of Dunkirk, in the Tour of Catalunya and at the Dauphiné, as he was used to, he chose the hardest way. But at the Dauphiné, there was only one sprint and it was the day of glory for German-Aussie Heinrich Haussler. Hushovd escaped on the last day in the mountain but the battle was hard between the top climbers behind him.
At the Norwegian national championship he got trapped by the best local team, Maxbo Bianchi. "I came to the Tour de France with no win but a lot of strength," he told Cyclingnews in London, after finishing 28th at 41 seconds on the Prologue. "The course didn't suit me as much as in Strasbourg, but I wasn't happy with my result."
"This is too much of a gap," he said prior to the start of Stage 1 in London. "I'd better forget about the yellow jersey for this year. I'll still go for stage wins and the green jersey. If I sprint for bonus, it'll be only because of the points." Counting goes fast at the Tour de France, though. Coming second to Robbie McEwen in Canterbury, Hushovd remains in search of his first win of the year, but he collected 12 seconds bonus on the finishing line and entered the top ten on general classification.
"It would take three or four days to reach the first place," Crédit Agricole's team manager Roger Legeay explained after Stage 1. "You can't expect Thor to get 20 seconds for winning and his rivals to get nothing, so you have to be patient. I'm proud of what he did today." Hushovd was happy as well, saying: "The first sprint of the Tour is always a dangerous one. I'm satisfied with coming in second. I'm still missing some speed compared to McEwen. I did the time trial flat out. That kind of effort stays in the legs for the next day and I could feel it."
"Winning the green jersey is a question of regularity," Legeay explained. "It's important to be up there every day."