Sylvain Calzati: The Lorient Express
Until today, many tried, but for one reason or another, failed in their attempt to escape the peloton's grasp. After a difficult opening week and yesterday's 52-kilometre slog against the clock, though, the sprinters' teams found themselves a little winded when it the time came to chase, giving hope to the sextet out front.
The flipside, however, was that each of them knew this. To win today's stage would require an element of surprise, and Sylvain Calzati's counter with just over 30 kilometres to go turned out to be a perfect jack-in-the-box move.
Once away on his own, the recently-turned 27 year-old summoned his forces from within, calling upon his three years' experience as a professional to distribute his remaining energy as efficiently as possible. This he did to perfection, the previous Tour de l'Avenir champion continuing his time trial of yesterday all the way to Lorient, and in doing so, earning the biggest win of his career.
"I am completely overwhelmed," said Calzati at the finish line. "I was able to take my chance today, and then continued on with a huge final effort... And I made it!"
"Vincent Lavenu [team manager of AG2R - ed. told me that there was a little climb in the next village. Explaining why I attacked there is impossible, it was intuition, I think. What I did know is that when I was alone on top of that climb, I could keep on going."
Finishing two minutes behind Calzati were two remnants of the early breakaway, with Liquigas rider Kjell Carlström outsprinting Patrice Halgand of Crédit Agricole. Ten seconds later, maillot vert Robbie McEwen continued to assert his sprinter superiority, comfortably beating Daniele Bennati and Erik Zabel for fourth, thus seeing no change to the leaderboard.
"This is absolutely fantastic," continued Calzati, still in shock over his accomplishment.
"I thought a lot about my wife and my little girl [during my escape], who are my good luck charms. There was so much going through my mind... I thought about everybody; my family, my trainers... also about the past year.
"2006 was a terrible year for me due to illness and a fall early on in the season [at the Etoile de Bessèges - ed.]. I'm very happy to be back at my level of 2004," he said.
Tomorrow brings a welcome day of rest for the 170 remaining coureurs in the 93rd Tour de France, but not before a 500 kilometre-long air-transfer between Lorient and Bordeaux. And yes, the Pyrenées are now looming.
How it unfolded
After the tough time test on Saturday, Sunday's stage was predictable with a long break getting away across the verdant rolling hills of central Brittany to finish in the gritty seaport of Lorient. Stage 8 had four categorized climbs: the steep Cat. 3 Cote de Mur-de-Bretagne (75.0km), Cat. 4 Cote de Saint-Mayeux (78.5km), Cat. 4 Cote de Gouarec (94.0km) and Cat. 4 Cote de Ty Marrec (138.5km), and three intermediate sprints Plessala (38.0km), Locmalo (112.5km) and Plouay (142.0km).
Stage 8 started at 31 minutes after midday on a cool Sunday with light rain. 170 riders rolled out of the village of Saint-Méen-le-Grand, birthplace of three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet and his brother Jean. American Bobby Julich (CSC) didn't start, as he was forced to abandon after crashing after 1.5km in yesterday's time trial.
It was an active start with plenty of attacking and the first one to succeed came from Etxebarria (Euskaltel) after 17.5km in Saint-Launeuc . Seven got across to the little Basque: Voigt (CSC), Dumoulin (AG2R), Weening (Rabobank), Vansevenant (Davitamon), Garcia-Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Grabsch (Milram) and Coutouly (Agritubel) - at the 18km mark. Maillot jaune Gonchar's T-Mobile team and Lampre were chasing and after 29km, the break had 0'35. At the first intermediate sprint in Plessala after 38.0km, little Sammy Dumoulin, big Cente Garcia and Jensy Voigt got the points and time bonus just 0'22 ahead of the fast closing peloton, and it all came back together in Plouguenast at the 45.5 km mark after one hour of racing.
The weather had started to clear as the Tour peloton headed deeper into the green heart of the rural countryside with huge Sunday crowds lining the road in cycling-mad Brittany. CSC's Dave Zabriskie made a clever counter-move 2km after the first break was caught and his attack attracted watchdog Matze Kessler (T-Mobile), Calzati (AG2R), Aerts (Davitamon) and Carlström (Liquigas). Halgand (Credit Agricole) went after the break after 48km, and it took him 8km to bridge, while the peloton was almost 2'00 behind. Dave Z was stung by a bee and was treated by the race doc, but the determined American brushed it off and kept riding hard in the escape.
After 63km in Le Quillio, the fast moving break had gained its max advantage of 7'30 over a Phonak-led peloton. Among the huge crowds lining the steep Cat. 3 Cote de Mur-de-Bretagne after 75.0km, Calzati took the points and doubled up on the next ascent of the Cat. 4 Cote de Saint-Mayeux just 3.5km later, and the escape was 6'20 ahead of the peloton.
At Locmalo after 112.5km, the day's second intermediate sprint, non-sprinter Zabriskie beat Calzati and Aerts and his six-second time bonus was enough to move Dave Z past break watchdog Kessler on GC. The sun had come out and the sidewind blowing from the northwest kept the speed in the break high. Zabriskie had been maillot jaune virtuel for quite a while and was working hard in the escape along with Carlström and Halgand, while AG2R's Calzati seemed to be soft pedaling and Kessler was just sitting on, protecting his T-Mobile leader Gonchar's advantage.
Finally as the last 50km arrived, Phonak got some help chasing from Française des Jeux as the break was still 4'00 up the road. Next on the menu du jour was the ascent of the Cat. 4 Cote de Ty Marrec with 42km to go, followed by the final intermediate sprint in Plouay. This stretch of road was the site of the final kilometres of the 2000 World Championships as well as the GP de l'Ouest France and Calzati topped the climb again, while Aerts took the bonus sprint ahead of a surging Dave Z. As the peloton climbed the Cote de Ty Marrec 3'25 behind, perhaps maillot jaune Gonchar's and George Hincapie were having deja vu: Gonchar's won his TT world title here while Hincapie took the GP de l'Ouest France last year on these same roads. Phonak had left the chasing role, but Française des Jeux was now aided by Lampre-Fondital up front.
After the town of Plouay, the break seemed to lose cohesion as it headed to Hennebont and the finish in Lorient. Calzati saw his chance and after Calan with 32km to go, the AG2R man made a huge attack and flew the coop. Halgand tried to chase as the others just sat there and watched as Zabriskie knew any move he made would be tracked by watchdog Kessler. Halgand croaked as he tried to chase down the flying Calzati, but luckily Finnish rider Carlström came across.
In Hennebont with 21km to race, Calzati had 0'45 on Carlström and Halgand, 1'00 on Dave Z, Aerts and Kessler, with the peloton at 2'30. A few clicks later, the CSC, Davitamon-Lotto and T-Mobile rider sat up and were absorbed and the peloton shut off the chase, ensuring that the first three riders would make it to the line ahead of them. In Lorient, Calzati took his second career win after the 2004 Tour de l'Avenir, while the Flying Finn of Liquigas-Bianchi took a well deserved runner-up spot ahead of Halgand, while Robbie Mac smacked the rest of the sprinters down in the bunch sprint for 4th place.
After Stage 8, the Tour entourage will board a charter flight to Bordeaux and hope to see the World Cup final between Italy and France, then enjoy rest day #1 at this topsy-turvy 2006 Tour De France in Bordeaux.
Stage 9 - Tuesday July 11: Bordeaux-Dax, 170km
Phase Two of the 93rd Tour begins today as the peloton heads south through the piney woods of Les Landes on this dead flat stage to Dax, hometown of renowned French road sprinter Andre' Darrigade. The sprinters' teams will be looking to keep things under control in the battle for the maillot vert as the Pyrenees Mountains loom in the heat haze to the south. Can Big Bad Boonen finally beat Rockin' Robbie Mac on the Route de Tercis? Not if Mac's lovely new leadout go-go Gert Steegmans has anything to say about it!