Danger-prone Viking back in maillot jaune
Indecision characterised the finale yesterday, with none of the favoured sprinters willing to take control. But one day later, the world's best were ready to stamp their authority on the road to Esch-sur-Alzette.
However, there were two things they didn't count on. First, a daring attack by T-Mobile's Matthias Kessler with six kilometres to go, and second, a crash just 2,000 metres from the finish that brought more than half the bunch to a complete halt, aiding the former's chances.
But with all the fast fellows still up front and Kessler holding a very tentative eight-second lead 1000 metres from the finish, the German met his fate and came up 200 metres short of a stage victory. Behind him, the final 500 metres was as intense as it gets at the Tour de France, as Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen had their 53x11s humming.
Singing the sweetest tune was Australian pocket rocket McEwen; his compact, 70 kilogram, muscled figure wrenching every last iota of out of body and bike, following through with a perfect throw to capture his ninth Tour stage win. Belgian world champion Boonen finished fast to take second, while Hushovd wanted the same line as McEwen and wouldn't budge, pulling his foot as a result and pedaling across the line with one leg, simultaneously throwing his right hand up in protest.
"Every stage you win in the Tour de France is special. This may be the last one, but I remember every single one of them in a different way," said McEwen.
"Every year you have to prove yourself again and again. And you can't forget the fact that I've just turned 34; they often say that when sprinters get older, they get slower; I haven't slowed down yet, so that's a good sign," he grinned.
"I think that what makes it special is that every year you start with a big zero on the scoreboard. You have to come here and you have to score. That's the pressure to get that stage win; now I've got it and that takes a bit pressure away. But we can go for more!
"The stage was nice because the way the team worked very well together. It was a very tough final with those small hills. I survived the stage very well and had plenty of speed. Fred [Rodriguez] brought me up to about seventh position in the last kilometre, being in front of me in the wind, and just improving our position the whole time. He did the perfect job.
"I started on the wheel of O'Grady and he was behind Zabel, then I went passed both of them. Because O'Grady passed Zabel on his left, I needed to go even more to the left. From there, I rode a direct line to the finish line as the road curved just a little bit to the right. With about hundred metres to go, I felt something against my foot and I pulled back to the right. That proved to be Hushovd."
As the saying goes, though, good things come in threes, and three third places (including two intermediate sprints) today has seen Hushovd back in yellow.
Was he surprised to be back in the maillot jaune so soon?
"Yeah sure, after all what happened yesterday!" he exclaimed. "First of all, when I was in the hospital [last night], I was afraid that I couldn't even race today. But later on, in the hotel, I knew it wasn't too bad; I could move and use my arm. This morning, I knew I could race and I knew that I was only two seconds behind the yellow jersey, so I wanted to try get it back.
"I was feeling a bit up and down [today]. The first half hour was alright but then I felt a bit tired. Mainly because of the everything that happened yesterday.
"I've taken lots of medication for the treatment of my wound. I feel it when I'm riding, but especially the shocks are hurting; that's because of the haematoma which is underneath - it's painful. That mix gave me a sore stomach. That's why I got to the medical car. I think the status of my arm will improve during the coming days."
On his reaction at the finish line, Hushovd said: "When you sprint you enjoy all the adrenaline... when the incident happened, I got scared and afterwards that turned into anger. That was my first reaction; when I saw the video, I understood it wasn't his [McEwen's] fault.
"Sprints are sometimes really dangerous, like yesterday. Nobody made mistakes. Robbie, just like other sprinters sometimes, makes some dangerous manoeuvres, but he didn't make mistakes [today]. I can't blame him today; I can blame myself a bit."
Asked if there was any bad blood between the two, McEwen replied: "I've already spoken with Thor since the finish. Thor and I watched to the video together. Thor came with his front wheel against my left foot. We're still friends, no worries."
Now five seconds ahead of Boonen and eight in front of McEwen, with overnight leader George Hincapie ten seconds behind in fourth place, the hard-as-nails God of Thunder will have to call on all his superpowers to survive tomorrow's stage to Valkenburg in Holland. Six categorised climbs in the last 100 kilometres and the famous Cauberg - the finish of the Amstel Gold Race each year - two kilometres from the finish will make the stage to Pays-Bas the most difficult to control so far.
Said a confident Hushovd: "I know that hill very well - that's where I won the time trial at the under 23 World's. Tomorrow is a hard day; it's up and down the whole day. I know that if I'm in form, I can survive the climbs. But it depends on how the race will develop, that will be affected by the climbers. I want to try and keep the jersey."
"I think it can end in a sprint," predicted McEwen. "It will be something maybe slightly tougher than today, but it will be very difficult to escape on those last climbs. I think pretty much all sprinters will be there: Hushovd, Boonen, Freire, Zabel, O'Grady... they wont worry too much about those hills. I hope to be there, too, and go for another stage win.
"I expect Boonen and Hushovd to be strong and they are strong. But they are not the only strong sprinters. Today, I showed that I was stronger."
How it unfolded
Stage 2 began in warm and sunny conditions just outside of Strasbourg in Obernai, an agricultural/tourist town in the Bas-Rhin. The riders faced 228.5 km of lumpy terrain en route to Esch-sur-Alzette, near the southern end of Luxembourg. One rider of the 176 did not start: Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), who has been suffering from a prostate infection and was taking antibiotics, but he was not recovered in time before the Tour started. But one rider who did start was big Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), who despite having several stitches to a cut in his right arm after yesterday, was looking forward to doing battle again, in true Viking style.
As with yesterday's stage, it didn't take long for the main breakaway of the day to be established. Today it was the turn of two unheralded Spanish riders, David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval) and Aitor Hernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who took off during the first kilometre and were not chased by the peloton. Again, the Tour is not being raced like it has been in recent years, with attack after attack going in the first 50 km before a break finally gets clear.
The two leaders were allowed a sizeable gap: 11'20 after 31 km as they climbed the cat. 3 Col des Pandours, where Hernández took the four points at the summit ahead of De la Fuente, with mountains leader Wegmann in third ahead of Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues). The placings were almost identical over the Col de Valsberg (km 50), except Pineau was third ahead of Wegmann. This put Hernández in the virtual lead for the spotted jersey.
As the breakaways averaged 36.9 km/h for the first hour, Discovery Channel began to ride tempo behind, protecting George Hincapie in the maillot jaune, and quickly pegging the gap back to 10 minutes. The situation remained like that until Quick.Step and Davitamon began to ride, pulling the leaders back to 7'25 at the first intermediate sprint of the day at Marimont-Les-Benestroff (km 107). De la Fuente took the points there, but the battle was on in the bunch for third: Tom Boonen edged out Hushovd for the final two seconds, clearly setting his sights on the green jersey. Hushovd was also thinking of yellow, as two seconds was all he needed to reclaim it from Hincapie.
The next sprint at Holling saw the same placings up front, but Boonen went too early behind and Hushovd easily came around him, claiming a virtual lead in the overall classification. This hotly contested battle for the intermediate sprints would have put a smile on McEwen's face, as he chose not to spend any more energy than he had to today.
On the day's third climb, the cat. 4 Côte de Kédange-sur-Canner (km 187.5), the gap between Hernández and De la Fuente had dropped to just 3'00, thanks to the work of Quick.Step's Cretskens, Davitamon's Vansevenant, Vansummeren and Brandt, and Credit Agricole's Charteau. De la Fuente could sense that Hernández was suffering, and sprinted for the summit, dropping the Euskaltel rider and making a bid for a solo victory with 40 clicks left to travel. Wegmann again took third, keeping his chances for the dots alive.
Hernández came back to the peloton before the final sprint in Yutz (km 198), which meant that there were 4 and 2 second time bonuses up for grabs. Boonen took four seconds while Hushovd claimed two, increasing his buffer over Hincapie for the yellow. With the gap coming down fast, De la Fuente survived until the penultimate climb, the Côte de Kanfen (km 212.5), where Wegmann attacked with Lefevre (Bouygues), Verdugo (Euskaltel) and eventually Gilbert (FDJ). Wegmann bridged up to the Saunier Duval rider on the last climb at 13 km to go, and although he took three points, De la Fuente was second and took over the maillot á pois.
Wegmann continued on his own with Gilbert's group sweeping up De la Fuente but dangling 20 seconds behind the leader, with the bunch another 20 seconds back, trying to get organised. Lampre-Fondital and Milram were now working, and Wegmann and the rest didn't last. With 7 km to go, it was peloton groupé.
With six kilometres to go, the road went up and down again as the riders entered Luxembourg. Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile) took a flyer and rode an excellent final 5.7 km, looking like he might snatch the stage from under the sprinters' noses. But Ballan and Flecha combined at the head of the bunch to pull back the T-Mobile man in the last 200 metres, before McEwen, Hushovd and Boonen launched their sprints on the right side of the road. McEwen hit the front and was not headed. Hushovd had his wheel, but lost momentum in the final metres when he clicked out of the pedals after McEwen drifted into him. That cost the Norwegian at least one place, and he finished third behind McEwen and Boonen, the latter also not having a smooth run. Still, the extra eight seconds plus his gains on the road were enough to put the tough Viking back in yellow for tomorrow.
Stage 3 - Tuesday, July 4: Esch-sur-Alzette - Valkenburg (Netherlands), 216 km
Stage 3 will be like a classics cross between Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold as it winds north through the Belgian Ardennes and into the hilly southeast corner of the Netherlands to finish atop the Cauberg climb as in the Amstel Gold classics. If it comes down to a front group, look for names like Dutch champ Boogerd, Valverde or Frank Schleck to take the honours.