T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich barely hung on to the leader's jersey in today's third stage into Austria, after having served Francaise des Jeux' Bradley McGee the stage win and ten bonus seconds on a silver plate. Thanks to his win, McGee now trails Ullrich by only two seconds, but neither seems particularly keen to actually have the jersey.
McGee was very happy with his stage win, crediting his teammates: "My teammates stayed with me for the whole day and continually gave me the right clothing and the right food. They set me up at the foot of the finishing climb and therefore I was very motivated to finish it off for them.
"The fact that I'm still two seconds behind Ullrich is a little present for my teammates. Now they don't have to defend the jersey. T-Mobile can keep doing that."
Ullrich and his team rode a strong race, even if he was a little isolated on the finishing climb with only Giuseppe Guerini left to help him. "Indeed I wouldn't have found it bad if McGee had taken the yellow," said Ullrich, who finished 12th. "Now the team still has to defend it; we feel obliged to. But it's going well, I'm satisfied."
How it unfolded
157 riders left Abtwil at 13.30 this afternoon, with Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step, stomach problems) and Guennadi Mikhailov (Discovery Channel) the non-starters. The weather was rainy but seemed to improve as the riders rode on. Since yesterday's time trial in Weinfelden had opened up rather large time differences in the general classification, a lot of riders were interested in early attacks, but none were let away for very long.
Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), David Loosli (Lampre-Caffita) and Cédric Hervé (Crédit Agricole) all made attempts to get away, Loosli even twice, but none of them lasted long. Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) and Jurgen van den Broeck (Discovery Channel) were next in line, but only lasted for a few kilometres before they were caught. Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and Alessandro Bertolini (Domina Vacanze) were the next to try after 13 km, and lasted 25 km in front before they came back.
At the front of the peloton, T-mobile were surprisingly assisted by the Phonak team, perhaps because of the declaration made by Ullrich, saying that he did not intend to keep the jersey at any cost. There was no need for Phonak to worry though, as T-mobile made their intentions obvious as the race moved closer to the Austrian border. The whole magenta coloured team lined up at the front and made life hard for those intending to break away.
Jörg Ludewig (Domina Vacanze), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues) and Antonio Colom (Illes Balears) tried to escape after 47 kilometres, but were brought back within minutes. T-mobile controlled the peloton all the way over the Swiss/Austrian border, and onto the lower slopes of the Arlbergpass. Before the intermediate sprint in Bludenz with 42 kilometres to go, Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Aurelien Clerc (Phonak) and his team mate Gregory Rast took off, and after Clerc had won the sprint, a few more riders seized the opportunity and formed a little break.
Along with Rast, Clerc and Albasini, points leader Bernhard Eisel (FDJ), Daniele Colli, Matej Mugerli (Liquigas), Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), and Marcus Zberg (Gerolsteiner) sat in the break, but T-mobile seemed determined not to let anyone go, and their actions very much contradicted with Ullrich's opinions before the stage.
The first attack uphill came from Linus Gerdemann (CSC) with 24 kilometres to go, and his actions attracted Discovery Channel's Jurgen Van Den Broeck who followed. This initiated a series of attacks, with Charly Wegelius (Liquigas), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues) and David Lopez (Euskaltel) being the first riders to follow.
The peloton came back together for the last sprint, won by Albasini in front of Clerc, who felt that he had been treated unjustly by Albasini, who sensibly took the shortest route to the line, even though it involved cutting a few corners tightly and not allowing Clerc any room to pass. Straight after the sprint, the attackers were off again, this time with never-tiring David Loosli, David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval), Alejandro Valverde (Illes Baleares), Iker Flores (Euskaltel) and Patrik Sinkewitz (Quick.Step) all heading up the road in turns. Valverde and Sinkewitz seemed to be the stronger riders as they powered away from the others, but in the dark secrecy of one of numerous tunnels, Euskaltel's Aitor Gonzalez countered and passed them.
Gonzalez was chased, first by Sven Montgomery (Gerolsteiner) and then by a 23 man group led by Guerini and Ullrich (T-mobile), followed by Bradley McGee (FDJeux), George Totschnig and Beat Zberg (Gerolsteiner), Alexander Moos, Tadej Valjavec and Daniel Schnider (Phonak), Frank Schleck (CSC), Patrik Sinkewitz and Michael Rogers (Quick.Step), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Fabian Jeker, Leonardo Piepoli and Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), Dario Frigo, Kim Kirchen and Vincenzo Nibali (Fassa Bortolo), Koldo Gil (Liberty Seguros), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), Daniel Atienza (Cofidis), Mirko Celestino (Domina Vacanze) and Francesco Bellotti (Credit Agricole).
Tadej Valjavec jumped across to Gonzalez with 12 kilometres to go, four to the top of the climb. When the two riders up front merged to a duo, the peloton was closing in fast since a few riders started to raise the speed at the front. Daniel Schnider was the next Phonak rider to jump away as Phonak riders do, and he was followed by Koldo Gil, fresh from the Giro and hungry for more stages. Gil stayed clear over the summit, and hit the wet descent of the Arlbergpass like a kamikaze pilot. Good skills helped Gil stay away down the mountain, but the peloton was chasing very close. With one kilometre to go, the chasing group only had a tiny gap to close but who should do it?
Ullrich, hungry for the stage win, eventually closed the gap, only to realize that a lot of riders behind him were also hungry for the stage. They overshot him from all directions, and too late, Ullrich seemed to understand that the stage and the bonus would go to Bradley McGee, a much bigger threat to Ullrich on the GC than Koldo Gil. Ullrich saw the riders spread out and tried to get out of the group that had him boxed in, worried that a time gap would open up.
Meanwhile, Sinkewitz had started the sprint with Totschnig on his wheel, but never matched the speed of McGee, who came round the slower riders in the middle of the road. Mirko Celestino followed McGee to take second, while Ullrich missed out on all bonus seconds. Michael Rogers held on to defend his third position in the GC, while Dario Frigo climbed to fourth, 1.12 behind Ullrich.