Stage 4: Cholet - Cholet (ITT)
Evans hits fellow classification contenders hard
Germany's Stefan Schumacher bettered the cream of the time trialing crop to capture the 29.5-kilometre Tour de France stage around Cholet and move into the race leader's maillot jaune. The 26 year-old Gerolsteiner rider recorded a time of 35'44" that stood against the hammering of Luxemburger Kim Kirchen second at 35'54" and Briton's David Millar third at 36'02".
"It's extraordinary to be on the podium in this jersey," noted the same rider who captured the pink leader's jersey of the Giro d'Italia in 2006 by winning stage three. "Because this is the Tour de France and everybody dreams of wearing this jersey. Also, the moment on the podium, you see it 1,000 times on television and then you're there yourself, it's impossible to imagine."
Team Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans delivered a blow in the windy Loire countryside side to his fellow general classification rivals. He finished third place, 27 second back on Schumacher, but more important was the distance he put on competitors like Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle - H30), Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). He put seven seconds into Menchov, around a minute into Cunego and Schleck, and 1'07" on Valverde.
"It is a good start but it is a long, long way to Paris," said Evans in a media scrum. "In my mind this is the first appointment for the GC favourites. So far so good. Super Besse will be the next big showing for the GC riders."
Despite the 21-second displacement in the overall, Evans now leads his nearest serious contender, Russia's Menchov, by 51 seconds. Devolder is 57 seconds back from the second place finisher in last year's Tour de France. Cunego, Valverde and Andy Schleck are all at about one minute, and Carlos Sastre is at 1'22" while Fränk Schleck is at 1'47".
The gaps will stay equal in tomorrow's sprinters' stage, but we should see Evans playing defence on the Tour de France's first mountaintop finish of Super Besse. The final climb rising nearly 500 metres to 1,289 metres will allow a perfect opportunity for Kirchen to take the maillot jaune from Schumacher.
France's star, Romain Feillu of Team Agritubel, was quickly forgotten today as Schumacher and Evans took control. The overnight race leader is not noted for his crono skills and suffered a loss of 4'59".
"It was fantastic with all those people supporting me," said the charismatic Frenchman. "It was very special to wear everything in yellow: my shoes, short, shirt, helmet..."
Feillu surely was a little shy of his best as he admitted to only sleeping three hours the night before his run.
American Dan Pate (Garmin Chipotle - H30), 2001 Espiors World Champion, was an early leader and time setter for team-mate Millar. "I rode as well as I could today and I was happy with it. We will see how much better the other guys are."
Voigt was next to make a strong showing, with a time of 36'19". "Today, [Bjarne Riis] said that I could go for it. We are also keeping an eye on the team GC."
The time of Voigt was followed by the day's heavy hitters. Kirchen was a threat to the stage win and the maillot jaune, and in the end did well by adding 12 points to his maillot vert lead. "I'm in very good form," said Kirchen, resting on the Avenue Anatole Manceau finishing straight. "I've been trying to win stages every day and today as well, but although I didn't win I'm happy with my time trial anyway."
The Columbia rider's time just pipped that of David Millar (Garmin Chipotle - H30), who had been targeting this stage since the final time trial of the Giro d'Italia. "I just enjoyed it so much, being back to my best," Millar revealed. "It was fun. It's not a disappointment. I went one hundred percent, I could really push myself. I am happy. Second isn't bad, the person who beat me was better."
Behind Millar in third was Evans and time trial World Champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank). The 27 year-old Swiss had a disappointing run. The expectation was heavy, and he was tipped to be the rider taking the stage and the yellow, not Schumacher.
Menchov was the second best of the classification riders on the day, finishing sixth. "The [winning] time is not so important because I felt good," Menchov said. He looked ahead to Thursday's stage to Super Besse, "It is important, the first contact with the mountains is always important."
Voigt, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle - H30), George Hincapie (Columbia) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) rounded out the top ten. "This has been the focus for us since the route was released," confessed American Vande Velde, who now sits 16 seconds behind Evans. "If I have some good legs on the mountaintop finishes I could be within the hunt. ... I am happy with how I rode today."
Stijn Devolder has been sick and was struck with back luck along the parcours. "I had to change bikes. I am happy, especially considering I had to change bikes," the Belgian said following his ride.
Italy's Damiano Cunego was pleased with his ride. "It was a decent time today," he said. "It is only the fourth day and I don't have all the energy to spend, as the days go on I will be able to use more of my forces. ... Tonight, I will have a good look at the classification and see what the combinations are."
"That's okay," when Andy Schleck saw his time of 37'13". "Three seconds to Cunego? I can make that up in the climbs I hope."
Tour de France top favourite Valverde suffered a setback. The rider who dominated the Dauphiné Libéré time trail lost ground to many of his rivals, but was not too concerned. "I am satisfied with my time," declared Valverde. "For me the most important [point] was not to lose time compared with the other favourites for the general classification and I achieved what I wanted to."
How it unfolded
The first rider off was Wim Vansevenant (Silence - Lotto) who is again competing for the lanterne rouge of last place in this year's Tour. He would end up with a time of 41'02, which wasn't quite good enough for last place. But the Belgian kept his "lead" over Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom) by more than two minutes.
Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) also took the start and, despite his crash injuries, was slightly faster than Vansevenant.
Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval-Scott) went off the ramp the ramp at 11:10 and he was the one to set the tempo and the intermediate times. At km 11 he had a 14'30, at km 19.5 a 25'52 and he finished with a 37'30. The Spaniard was in the hot seat. But soon trouble was brewing, as Garmin's Danny Pate was two seconds faster than Bertogliati at the second check. And the American would eventually unseat the Saunier Duval rider by over half a minute!
Pate was in the hot seat for quite some time. Then, it was Jens Voigt's turn to stomp on those pedals and get the lead. He dominated each check (14'09, 25'05) and ended the day with a 36'19.
Even Denis Menchov (Rabobank), one of the pre-race favourites for the overall, couldn't touch the German in the first two checks. However, the Russian turned around and managed to squeeze past the CSC rider by a single second.
Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) looked like he was trying, but, in his own words, he is not here for the overall. He ended the day in 115th with a 39'20. Vincenzo Nibali took off at 15:20 and had a very good ride. While he couldn't touch Menchov, he only lost 14 seconds to the Russian by the stage's end.
Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) also had a decent ride, with a 37'13. He would end up in the vicinity of riders like Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre). The latter had a good day and posted a 37'10.
A few riders before Cunego, it was the turn young Swede Thomas Lövkvist (Columbia), who was having a good day. He had 14'23 at the first check, 25'27 at the second and finished with a 36'32. This turned out to be good enough to take over the young rider classification.
But all eyes were on Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank). The Swiss was expected to win the stage, but the first check showed that it would be a difficult task - he was ranked two seconds behind Voigt. At the second check, Cancellara had drifted a further five seconds back. But by the finish the Swiss turned it around and was ahead of Menchov and Voigt but just by one and two seconds respectively.
Shortly after 16:00 Christian Vande Velde and Stefan Schumacher took off in a two-minute span. Vande Velde had a good ride, but his 14'13 on the first check was blasted by Schumacher, who was the first rider under 14 minutes, with a 13'54.
After George Hincapie (Columbia) got underway, he clocked in at the first check with a 14'08. Vande Velde and Schumacher continued their drag race, with a 24'42 to 25'12 advantage for the German. Hincapie was four seconds slower than his compatriot.
Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and David Millar (Garmin Chipotle - H30) were the next to rush out of the start house. Evans with a 14'16 couldn't quite match Millar's speed, who was nine seconds faster. The gap between the two remained virtually the same, with Millar the second rider under 25 minutes (24'57).
Everybody was on the road when Romain Feillu (Agritubel) set of at 16:56 in his yellow jersey. Valverde constantly lost time and couldn't quite repeat his stunning Dauphiné performance. Kirchen, on the other hand, looked pretty good in his green outfit. He had a 14'05 at the first check and was the only one somewhat within challenging distance of Schumacher.
Vande Velde had finished with a 36'21, but Schumacher kept his unbelievable pace, averaging almost 50km/h and scored a 35'44.
Hincapie hit the line with a 36'26, while Evans clocked a 36'12. Millar seemed to be catching up with Schumacher at the second check, but lost time on the return to town and eventually finished just outside the 36-minute mark 36'03. Kirchen rode home one second faster. It turned out to be the podium was made, with Schumacher winning closely ahead of Kirchen and Millar.
Schumacher said "I didn't believe it until the end. It was darn close. I constantly calculated if it would be enough and was really nervous. I dreamt of the stage win and yellow. Both is a reality now. Unbelievable."
The riders who were in the break yesterday and mingled at the top of the overall were off last, but they could not challenge the leader and Feillu could not even dream to defend his yellow jersey. He had 1'46 on the contenders, but ended the day in 169th, almost five minutes down.
Stage 5 - Wednesday, July 9: Cholet - Châteauroux, 232km
This is the longest stage of this year's Tour. However, with no classified climbs it will be far from the toughest as it heads eastwards towards the centre of France. Once again, the flat straight roads give every advantage to the sprinters' teams in the last chance before the terrain gets decidedly hillier tomorrow. Aspiring breakaway specialists may have other ideas though, and those who took it a bit easy in the time trial yesterday might fancy a tilt at this one.
This is the third Tour de France to feature the town of Cholet, and the second stage of this year's race as it hosted both the start and finish of yesterday's time trial. Châteauroux has only hosted the Tour de France once before – in 1998 – when Mario Cipollini finally managed to open his account that year after a first week of crashes and bad luck.
The route is slightly different – and a few kilometres longer – but the stage start and finish are the same as those ten years ago. Apart from the Château Raoul, that gives the city its name, Châteauroux's big claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of French acting legend Gérard Depardieu.
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