Milram's sprinter Erik Zabel had the bittersweet experience of taking the green jersey on a stage he very much wanted to win. Zabel has won the points classification in six consecutive Tours (1996-2001), but found his time on the podium to be a bit of consolation for failing to take the stage five bunch sprint, which was won by Liquigas' Filippo Pozzato.
Zabel's last Tour stage win was in 2002, and he was hoping to break the long dry spell, but was glad to be back in green. "It's fantastic to be back in the green jersey. The last time I won it was in 2001 and the last time I wore it was in 2002 so, for me, it's a long time ago but it fits well."
Zabel, who celebrated his 37th birthday during the Tour, had long since given up serious aspirations of winning the Tour's green jersey and came to the Milram squad to work with his younger team-mate Alessandro Petacchi. With the Italian missing the Tour, and still awaiting a decision from the Italian Olympic Committee regarding the high level of the asthma drug Salbutamol in his urine during a Giro doping control, Zabel's role was changed at the last minute. "Normally I would have come to this Tour to lead out the sprints for Alessandro Petacchi," Zabel explained. "Last Wednesday my team manager told me, 'Okay, now you have to sprint.' I had just two days to think about this but I'm pleased to be able to get a reward."
The affable German, who takes his frequent second place finishes with good humour, is honest about his abilities. "I know that I'm not the fastest anymore," he admitted, "but I'm still there and I have a lot of fun in the peloton so that the most important thing for me." His time in the green jersey is a welcome positive experience after a few grim weeks in June following his tearful admission to EPO use in the 1996 Tour.
Whether he will pursue the jersey to Paris is unclear. "I'm happy to wear the green jersey for another day," Zabel explained, "I'll think about it from day to day: Paris is so far away in my mind so I'm only thinking about tomorrow... I think this year it's a little bit different because there's no absolute favourite in the sprints: everybody can beat everybody so the interest in the points classification remains high."