Hot, Holland, Hot! Boonen takes the daily double
Like yesterday's stage to Esch-sur-Alzette, just one rider separated breakaway from bunch with five kilometres to go. Unfortunately for AG2R's José Luis Arrieta, he was caught at the base of the Cauberg three kilometres from home, but yesterday's sole escapee Matthias Kessler turned around his disappointment on the climb's 8.3 percent slopes, the T-Mobile man leaving the entire field in his wake and coming home a winner in Holland.
"Yesterday, I already had very good feelings, I felt really good. Today was exactly the same, so I thought I'd try again," said Kessler on his motivation to try, try again.
"The race was different [yesterday compared to today] though, for three reasons," added the 27 year-old.
"The heat, the distance and the fatigue of some riders - it all contributed to a hectic stage and loss of concentration in the peloton. Everybody must watch out if they don't want to be involved in a crash.
"And the parcours was completely different; yesterday, the final climb was five kilometres from the finish so that allowed the peloton to reorganise - they were much faster than me, of course. Today, there were only two kilometres left after the [top of the] Cauberg, so I knew it would be harder for them to come back."
Five seconds later, his Australian team-mate Michael Rogers led home a group of 47 riders, with Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Tom Boonen (Quick-Step-Innergetic) and Erik Zabel (Milram) third to fifth respectively. On 'Le Cauberg', the rainbow-striped Belgian was a cut above the rest of the pure sprinters, with Hushovd and McEwen finishing two or three groups behind.
Consequently, Boonen elevated himself into the maillots jaune and vert - and without a doubt, fuelling his confidence no end in what is turning into a very fiery war for green.
"I was trying to win the stage - the [yellow] jersey would follow," the world champion began by saying.
"But I had to deal with a slow leak in my tyre in the last five kilometres. It was very dangerous to stand on the pedals, so I stayed in the saddle and rode defensively. I hoped that everything would be brought back together, but that didn't happen.
"Tomorrow, I will be able to ride in the yellow jersey through Belgium!" Boonen exclaimed happily. "I guess that's something which maybe happens one every ten years, so I think it's very special. I will try to make the most of those moments."
Speaking about the maillot jaune, with 17 seconds separating first to tenth and no more than half a minute between 11th to 20th, it's still very much a wide-open affair. Unfortunately for Alejandro Valverde, the door was slammed shut for the Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears leader, who came off worst in a high-speed pile-up and fractured his right collarbone.
"I'm sorry to hear Valverde crashed and is out of the race," said stage winner Kessler, "because I knew how difficult it is for a team to continue riding without a leader." As for his own team, he said: "Now there's only with seven of us and Klöden is our new leader. We came here very well prepared, and for myself, I was 100 percent ready for the Tour. We're all motivated for this Tour de France."
Pushed a little further on this, the T-Mobile 'Pit-bull' as he's sometimes nicknamed refused to budge. "The first day we affected by the removal of Ullrich and Sevilla, but we are pro riders, so we needed to get focused and show what we're capable of. Yes, I'm in contact with Jan and his wife [after what happened], but that it a private matter between them and myself, so I won't be telling you [the press] about it."
Perhaps spurred by Kessler's victory today, the next person to wear the coveted golden fleece could be world time trial champion Rogers, just one second behind Boonen. Maybe George Hincapie or Thor Hushovd would like another go - or maybe 'Tommeke' will hold onto it a little longer.
"Maybe I'll keep it until Paris!" joked Boonen.
"I don't know really; I should take a look in the road book to see what's possible. Rogers is very close but I guess he will stay away from the intermediate sprints to be fresh enough for the individual time trial.
"To know what's possible, I'll have to see how far the other sprinters are behind me. Of course, I need to make sure that fighting for yellow doesn't see that I miss out on the green jersey in Paris."
Whatever happens, it's been a real case of maillot jaune musical chairs in the opening week of Le Tour.
How it unfolded
175 riders took the start today in Esch-sur-Alzette at 12:10 on a hot, sunny midday, with six climbs on the 216.5 km stage. It was a parcours that was like a cross between the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold classics, as it wound north through the Belgian Ardennes and into the hilly southeast corner of the Netherlands to finish just after the Cauberg climb like in the Amstel Gold Race.
After a fast start and few early attacks, it was Jensy Voigt (CSC) who made a strong move at km 15 near Strassen, and he was quickly joined by Arrieta (AG2R), Pineau (Bouygues), Laurent (AG2R) and Etxebarria (Euskaltel). This was the right combination and the quintet cruised away as the peloton was in no mood to try and bring them back on the hot, hard and hilly stage. By Bridel, 5 km later, the break already had 1'30 and Voigt was virtual malliot jaune as the big German rouleur was in 47th, 0'36 behind leader Thor Hushovd.
At the first sprint in Mersch after 35 km, the break had extended its lead to 3'55, where Voigt beat Arrieta and Laurent for the points and time bonus. The first hour was run at 45 km/h average as Credit Agricole was riding tempo all alone at the front of the peloton. The break had 5'20 after 50 km as they began a long, gradual climb out of the Sure River valley up to Hosingen.
Credit Agricole upped the chase pace behind as the lead reached 5'00 and the status quo remained as the afternoon heat went over 30 degrees. In the second hour of racing, 42.2 km were covered and the average for over two hours was 43.6 km/h. As the break passed into Belgium after 92 km, the lead was 5'25 over the peloton, with the tough climbs of the Belgian Ardennes looming ahead. In the feed zone in Trois-Ponts, the break increased its advantage to 6'00 on the bunch, and it didn't get much over this.
The first climb was Cat 3 Cote de la Haute Levee, where Pineau beat Etxebarria for the GPM points. Next was the second intermediate sprint in Spa with 72.5 km to race, where Voigt took the points ahead of Arrieta. On the Cat 3 Cote de Oneux after 155 km, a 5.1%, 3.2 km ascent, Pineau took the GPM points again and the peloton was 5'05 back.
Amid the verdant green Ardennes climbs, thousands of Belgian fans were lining the narrow roads to cheer the Tour De France peloton. After a crash on the outskirts of Verviers with 60 km to go, Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) and Eric Dekker (Rabobank) tangled and hit the deck. Both riders had to abandon, Rodriguez with a suspected broken collarbone (which turned out not to be one) and heavy concussion, and Dekker with concussion and facial injuries.
Past Verviers, Rabobank and Quick.Step hit the front to give Credit Agricole to help bring back the fugitives, who were now 4'30 ahead. The third climb of Stage 3, the Cat 4 Cote de Petit-Rechain came with 51 km to go where Pineau took the points again and was looking good to take over the maillot á pois after Stage 3.
Atop the Cat. 4 Cote de Loorberg with 27 km to go, it was Pineau first again, and he would take over the maillot á pois, but the chase had brought the gap down to 1'40. Suddenly, with 22 km to go near Mechelen, ProTour leader Valverde crashed out with a broken right collarbone and the Tour De France had yet another big contender out of action. On the Cat 4 Cote de Tintelen after 201.0 km, Arrieta attacked with 16 km to go and went solo, while Commesso (Lampre-Fondital) was on the attack in the peloton 1'25 behind and got away. Toto was pulled back as Liquigas-Bianchi and Milram cranked up the pace for Garzelli and Celestino, who were looking to attack on the the Cauberg. With 7 km, the last elements of the break, Voigt and Laurent, were absorbed by the peloton, while AG2R's Arrieta was still 1'02 ahead and hanging tough.
With 4 km to go in Valkenburg, Discovery Channel joined the chase as Arrieta still had a 0'40 lead. The tension mounted as Arrieta still had to climb the tough cat 3 Cauberg climb, then hang on for another 2 km to the finish. But as the courageous AG2R man hit the base of the 1.5 km Cauberg, he had cracked and the peloton had him in its sights.
Boogerd was going all out for Freire, and Boonen was right there with Hincapie Kessler and Gilbert as Casar had a mechanical. But Matthias Kessler's superb attack on the Cauberg was perfectly timed and he dumped Gilbert over the top and was alone as last kilometre, just like yesterday's Stage 2. With the last 800m all slightly downhill to the finish, Kessler wound it up and the chasers couldn't close the gap as they did in Esch-sur-Alzette yesterday. The T-Mobile man took a much needed win for the magenta team, while his teammate Mick Rogers won the group sprint for 2nd and a 0'12 time bonus, ahead of Bennati and Boonen.
Hushovd was gapped up the Cauberg and lost 0'17 to Boonen, so World Champ Tom Boonen took over the maillot jaune from the Credit Agricole rider.
Wednesday, July 5: Stage 4 Huy (B)-Saint-Quentin / 215 km
Time for Tom - Boonen that is - and Boonen-Mania will ring through the Kingdom of Belgium. The World Champ trades his rainbow stripes for the solid yellow of the maillot jaune, so Stage 4 from Huy to the northern French bourg of St.Quentin will be a perfect place for Quick.Step to flex their muscles all day. Can Tom Terrific be the first maillot jaune to win a stage in a sprint since Cipo did it in 1997? Not if Robbie McEwen has anything to say about it, but with his leadout man Freddy Rodriguez out of the race, Boonen may prevail in Saint-Quentin.