Hushovd lucks out; Hincapie lucks in
A sprinters' stage turned out to be exactly that. As the maillot jaune wanted, an early break went and spent most of the day out in front, never looking too dangerous, before being brought back inside ten kilometres to go. However when it came to the sprint, things turned very sour for Thor Hushovd. Very sour indeed.
With a 550 metre-long finishing straight and the peloton at breakneck speed, the sprinting giants approached the line, choosing to wage their battle on the right-hand side of the avenue de la Forêt-Noire. Tom Boonen found himself in front 150 metres too early but had to go; Robbie McEwen was on his wheel, and although boxed in, he miraculously managed to escape again; Hushovd too could see no clear opening, but nevertheless went down a tiny gap along the barriers, where his arm hit a spectator's promotional banner, slicing it wide open.
Ignoring the mayhem and finding his own, clean line was Jimmy Casper. Working his short, muscular legs like the pistons of a Formula 1 motor car and passing rider after rider as if he really were a ghost, Casper emerged in real life at the finish line, unscathed and victorious.
"It was very strange sprint; strange, because there was really nobody leading it," he said. "But it's really the kind of sprint I like, so it was very good for me. And of course, it's something great for me to beat such big champions like Boonen, Hushovd and McEwen.
"At 1.5 kilometres before the last curve I was still not too well-placed, so I thought it was better to stay there and see what happens in the very last moment. Then, it opened up just at the right time and I did the perfect sprint. I hope I can repeat that soon. I know that people waited to see me win for a long time and I hope that I can make up for it now.
About his preparation leading up to the Tour, the 28 year-old said: "I worked a lot, but what changed compared to previous years is that I feel good in my head. That's something new for me, so it was easier to train harder, and I came here more confident."
While Hushovd still finished ninth, smart thinking by George Hincapie saw him take third in the final intermediate sprint and earn a two-second time bonus as a result, placing him two seconds in front by the end of the day. Naturally, the 33 year-old American was delighted in becoming the fourth American to wear the maillot jaune in Tour de France history, but told the press that wasn't his intention until very late in the piece.
"Today, the plan wasn't to go for any bonus sprints, but when we caught the breakaway, I saw an opportunity that I couldn't pass up... I took it, and I think I made a great decision," said a confident Hincapie.
"I was very disappointed to lose by so little yesterday. I was really gunning for the prologue and I thought I did a great ride, but I got beat by a great rider. I worked super hard to start the Tour de France in great shape, and I turned that disappointment around into a great day."
Although the seven-man escape was caught, breakaway rider Fabian Wegmann from Gerolsteiner took full advantage of his climbing prowess and was the first to crest the only climb of the day midway through the stage, earning the right to wear the first spotted tunic of the 2006 Tour.
Speaking with race doctor Gérard Porte at the finish line, he offered Cyclingnews some good news: the mighty Thor will live to fight another day.
"He is alright!" exclaimed Porte.
"We could see a slash in his right arm, it's big but not too dangerous. The wound has caused heavy loss of blood in the first few moments, which is logical after such a big effort, but it's not too serious. He talked clearly, didn't lose his consciousness and could answer all our questions. So his situation doesn't scare us anymore.
"But he's got a big haematoma underneath the wound which makes any conclusion difficult. That's why we will take him to the hospital. There will we clean the wound, do some tests and afterwards we'll be able to make a prognosis for tomorrow. I can say the chance is good that he can restart because he didn't fall heavily. I hope he can restart, that's for sure."
Added his team manager Roger Legeay: "He has hit a PMU hand about ten metres before the finish. He has got a slash in his arm, it's got a width of about five centimetres, and he lost a lot of blood. I was really scared because you hear so many strange sounds but we didn't see what happened on television; I looked away when the stage was finished. When I looked again, I saw him lying on the ground."
"It's very dangerous, and it's not the first time it happened," said Casper, "so I think it will be a good thing to ban them - in the last 500 metres, at least."
How long Hincapie holds onto the maillot jaune is not up to him, he says. "I would love to keep it as long as possible, but it's really up to Johan [Bruyneel].
"I don't know if we'll try to control it tomorrow and I don't have much time; for me to sprint against guys like Thor or Boonen and those guys, it's really not my thing anymore. All I've been training for lately is time trials and climbing, so my sprint has got slower for sure," he smiled. "But if I get lucky and hold onto it for another day or two, that'd be great."
On his unspoken role as leader of the Discovery Channel team, Hincapie replied: "I don't really need that term, to be called leader of Discovery Channel. For me, those are just words, written in a newspaper or journal. I know what my ambitions are. If I can show my team after the first long time trial or the Pyrenées that I can still ride with the best guys, then I'm sure I'll get that role.
"Everybody wants to see a replacement for Lance, but there really is no replacement for Lance... I don't know if we'll see another Lance in our lifetimes. We came here with different ambitions and we came here with a great team, and we just want to accomplish those ambitions."
How it unfolded
On a hot, sunny summer Sunday morning, 176 riders took the start in Strasbourg's Cathedral Square and after 10km in Ittenheim in the suburbs of Strasbourg, three Frenchman went on the attack. Perhaps inspired by their big football win the night before against Brazil, Stephane Auge (Cofidis), local lad Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom) and Benoit Vaugrenard (Francaise des Jeux) got a gap and another French rider, Nicolas Portal (Caisse d'Epargne), soon joined them.
Even though the race pace was high, the quartet of Bleus gained one minute after 12km, and as three other riders bridged across: '05 San Fran GP winner Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) and Walter Beneteau (Bouygues Telecom). The break of the day was established and after 22km in Rumersheim, the seven escapees had a established a three minute lead.
The wind had shifted from the morning and was now coming from the northeast, which made a cross/headwind from the right for the Tour riders. Maillot jaune Hushovd's Credit Agricole team took over the pace-making in the front of the peloton and the stage was set for the next few hours of Stage 1.
Vaugrenard took the first points sprint in Saverne, which moved him ahead of Joost Posthuma for the maillot blanc of best young riders and as the road headed south, the riders now had a tailwind that pushed them to a faster pace. At the feed zone in Dorlisheim with 98km to go, the gap rose to 5' as the first two hours were run at 44km/hr. average.
The doping scandal of the last few days has had absolutely no effect on the popularity of Le Tour along the roads, as huge crowds lined the road all the way. At the one and only GPM of the day, the Cat 4 climb on the 1.1km Cote de Heiligenstein with 83km to go, it was Fabulous Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) who took the sprint ahead of regional rider Sprick and the German earned the first maillot pois at this year's Tour.
As Stage 1 turned due east in Barr with 80km to go, Quick.Step, CSC and Milram joined Credit Agricole in the chase. At the second sprint in Plobsheim with 47km to go, it was Beneteau who took the points and time bonus as the peloton chased 2'10" behind. Across the Rheine River into Germany and with 27km to race in Offenburg, the steady chase had pulled the break back to 1'25". Vasseur and Cretskens were on the front for Quick.Step's Boonen, while Marzio "Muleskinner" Bruseghin was Lampre-Fondital's tempo man for Bennati.
As the gap between the break and the peloton fell under 1', Beneteau hit out from the break solo and had a 20" gap as the third intermediate sprint in Kehl approached with 9km to go. The Bouygues Telecom man took the sprint points and 6" time bonus solo, while the rest of the break had sat up and was absorbed by the chase. 15" behind, Credit Agricole rider Sebastian Hinault took the 4" bonus for second to protect Thor Hushovd's maillot jaune, but a clever George Hincapie took third and gained 2" to move into the virtual race lead.
After the sprint, Quick.Step moved to the front and upped the pace, quickly catching Beneteau and making it peloton groupé with 7km to go. No team took command in the final kilometres and under the flamme rouge, it was Quick.Step's Pippo Pozzato who was trying to set up Boonen.
On the Avenue de la Foret Noire with 400m. to go, the world champion found himself right up front as his team leadout had a snafu. Boonen jumped, then slowed to try and reposition, but the other sprinters were keying off him and slowed as well with 300m to go.
Nimble Cofidis sprinter Jimmy Casper then moved to the front with 220m. to go, jumped hard and managed to hold off a fast finishing Zabel, McEwen and Bennatti for the surprise win. "We were hoping to win after the French team won the football yesterday and I was just in the right position when a hole opened up for me - and I just went for it", explained a delighted Casper post-stage.
As Casper powered up the middle for victory, maillot jaune Hushovd was trying to advance along the barriers and with 150m to go, a fan waving a giant green PMU cardboard hand managed to hit the big Norwegian on his right bicep, opening a deep cut. Hushovd crossed the finish line in ninth without any time bonus, looking down at his right arm as the blood in disbelief. A few hundred metres past the finish, the Credit Agricole rider collapsed to the ground in his blood-soaked maillot jaune as Tour de France doctor Gerard Porte rushed to his side.
Hushovd was loaded into the ambulance and went to the hospital for treatment. As Hushovd headed to the hospital, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie, who finished out of danger in 23rd in the sprint, took over the maillot jaune thanks to his 2" time bonus in the day's final sprint.
"I knew that last (points sprint) was a good chance for me to take a time bonus and maybe the maillot jaune. I was really disappointed in the prologue; I wanted it yesterday. It was hard to get a time bonus before with the breakaway today, but once the break came back and I saw the sprinters were saving it for the end, I decided to go for it and it worked," Hincapie said.
Monday, July 3: Stage 2 Obernai (FR)-Esch-sur-Alzette (LUX), 223 km
It's a long day on Monday for the Tour de France peloton, with the second longest stage of Le Tour on the program. Stage two heads northwest towards Luxembourg with two Cat 3 cols in the first 50km.
After the frantic battle for mountain points on the ascents, a break should get away, but the sprinters teams will have to be careful not to let them get too much time and roll it up. With two Cat 4 hills in the last 17km, opportunistic counter-attackers will try for the winner's bouquet in Esch-sur-Alzette.