Stage 3: Marseille - La Grande-Motte
Armstrong adds an unexpected twist to the leader board
On an unassuming Monday afternoon heading to the luxuriant coastal town of La Grande-Motte, the Columbia-HTC team decided to take the Tour de France on and hit it for six.
Before the 96th Tour began, many commented on the apparent strength of Astana which boasts general classification contenders Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer in their midst. But combined and riding as one today was not Astana, but the American-owned team who last week picked up a new sponsor, HTC. Columbia-HTC proved most powerful team during stage 3.
After eight Columbia-HTC riders forced a perilous 28-man move to go clear some 32-kilometres from the finish and send the rest into panic, they still had the energy and ability to control the race right to the line. While the preceding kilometres were unique, the scenario in the final five-hundred metres had an uncanny sense of déjà-vu, as lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish played a familiar final hand to give the young Briton his sixth career Tour stage and fifteenth win of the season.
"It was left to just me and Mark Renshaw," Cavendish said of his second consecutive Tour triumph. "He took me to 200 metres to go because of the headwind and didn't slow down at all. He kept the pace and I was able to swing right off his wheel to take my win."
Right hand to his ear as if calling home to mum in Great Britain, left hand pointing repeatedly at his new sponsor, American cell phone maker HTC, it was a gesture more than salute. Cycling's most prolific winner for the past two years pulled off the cheeky though clever stunt as Cervelo TestTeam's Thor Hushovd was left in the wake of his far smaller opponent to finish a distant second.
A trio of Frenchmen, Cyril Lemoine (Skil-Shimano), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) and Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) rounded out the top five.
No country for old men – says who?
Perhaps the most significant consequence resulting from Monday's domination by the Columbia octet is that Alberto Contador is no longer Astana's best-placed man – he has been replaced by none other than 37-year-old, seven-time Tour champion Armstrong, who leapfrogged from tenth to third on the overall classification.
Armstrong now sits in third overall, 40 seconds behind maillot jaune Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank. Columbia-HTC's Tony Martin of Germany is second, 33 seconds in arrears of yellow. The 2007 Tour champ Contador is now fourth and 19 seconds behind Armstrong, with Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins a minute-flat behind Cancellara in fifth.
"Nobody – that includes us – thought that the field would be split up like that," said Cancellara, the only member of Saxo Bank to make the break.
"We had information that there was a turn in one kilometre, and there would be crosswind. So I went to the front and then it was easy for me to stay inside the break. I was in constant contact with the team car to know what was happening behind, and for sure, I hasn't happy to be the only one there, but that's just cycling, that's the sport. Now, we have to turn the page and look forward."
What this now means to the Astana leadership issue they would not say. Perhaps they don't know. But to the analyst on the fence, it seems there has been a subtle though distinct change in the way Armstrong will now approach the next two-and-a-half weeks.
"You know what the wind's doing, you see a turn's coming up, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have to go to the front. I wasn't waiting, just trying to stay up front and stay out of trouble and then it happened," rationalised Armstrong.
But each time the Texan continued to look back and saw the tenuous gap behind him, aware that Contador, Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) were not there, he could stand it no longer. 20-km out, Armstrong raised his arm, and motioned team-mates Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia to get to the front. They didn't think twice, and by the finish, the first 25 riders finished 41 seconds ahead of the second main group, led by Agritubel's Roman Feillu.
"I've won the Tour de France seven times, why wouldn't you ride at the front? That makes no sense, why wouldn't you ride?" was Armstrong's rhetoric.
Said Astana DS Johan Bruyneel: "Sometimes things like that happen. It was a surprise moment, not normal that all the favourites are surprised. No-one expected it.
"We were studying the map all day, and the wind direction was the opposite of what we expected; then all of a sudden it was there. It was definitely not a plan for us to be at front, it just happened," he said.
Ah, Marseille – 57 kilometres of coastline
Leaving the south-eastern port city of Marseille at 1 p.m. Monday afternoon – the 33rd occasion the Tour has paid a visit here – Frenchman Maxime Bouet of Agritubel spent less than a kilometre in the comfort of the peloton before choosing his breakaway moment. Taking with him Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Koen de Kort (Skil-Shimano), it turned out to be the second day in succession the 2009 Tour de France saw a breakaway quartet.
Like Sunday they headed west, but unlike the day before, the foursome established a sizeable advantage – due in no small part to the peloton's lethargy – that went out to a handy twelve-and-three-quarter minutes after 50-km, giving them half a chance. However, a heady cocktail of fatigue, steaming-hot conditions on dead-flat roads, and a Columbia-HTC-organised chase put paid to their chances, inexorably wiping away all but four minutes of their advantage with 50km to go the the line in La Grande-Motte.
A group crash that brought down Lampre's Marzio Bruseghin (bloodied though not beaten) shortly after gave the break some respite, as did the familiar sight of wild white horses and flamingos as they rode through the nature preserve of the Camargue – but in reality, it only postponed the inevitable.
Some 30-km out, and driving so hard at the head of the pack on roads exposed to the wind, the entire Columbia-HTC squad bar one, unawares at first, proceeded to break the field to pieces. "We didn't plan it," Cavendish explained, "it just so happened that we were at the front when the wind changed. At that time, it seemed like the perfect moment so we went. But it wasn't planned 10 minutes before, or even 30 seconds before, it just happened at the right time and that's when we hit it."
Making the 28-man split – and flooding the second, far larger, group with panic (a smaller third bunch had also formed) – were: the maillot jaune of Cancellara (Saxo Bank); Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, George Hincapie, Kim Kirchen, Tony Martin, Maxime Monfort, Mark Renshaw and Michael Rogers (Team Columbia-HTC); Lance Armstrong, Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia (Astana); Thor Hushovd and Hayden Roulston (Cervelo Test Team); Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi); Stéphane Auge, Samuel Dumoulin and Christophe Kern (Cofidis); Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step); Maxime Bouet (Agritubel); Linus Gerdemann and Fabian Wegmann (Team Milram); and Cyril Lemoine, Fumiyuki Beppu, Koen de Kort, Simon Geschke, Jonathan Hivert and Thierry Huppond (Skil-Shimano).
When Armstrong signalled to Popovych and Zubeldia to join the push, their lead went out to 40 seconds, and combined, their might was enough to stay away. From there, Columbia-HTC had just one job left to do: deliver Cavendish to the win. Success number two for the Manxman!
For images of stage three click here
Time to move on and up for Menchov
For those vying for GC, Tuesday's 39-kilometre team time trial is all important. Rabobank's classification contender, Denis Menchov, has already experienced a below-par performance against the clock, 53rd in Saturday's 15.5-km opener in Monaco and losing precious time to his adversaries.
This year, the orange-clad outfit have brought with them a team who are virtually all dedicated to the Russian's search for a Giro-Tour double. Directeur sportif Erik Breukink told Cyclingnews that while they may not be favourites compared to teams like Columbia-HTC, Garmin-Slipstream and Astana, they're nontheless confident of a top-five finish on Stage 4 of the 96th Tour de France.
"He didn't have a good rhythm, and then he lost a lot of time on the first part. You can't recover that in a short time trial," Breukink said of Menchov's ride last Saturday.
"But in the Tour you have to forget those things quickly, and you have to continue. You have to look forward, to see what your chances are, and see what you can do.
"I think we have a good team: a top five is possible," forecasted Breukink of his team's chances on the fourth stage. "It's a very technical circuit, not so easy. Some teams are big favourites, but we are confident. Just before the tour, we had two days of training for the TTT, so we know what to do."
Though with a team so focused on the Paris podium with Menchov, where does that leave Oscar Freire, who found himself caught up in the chaos of Sunday's finale and gained no points?
"With Oscar, we don't have a team around him," conceded Breukink, "we have a team around a GC rider. Oscar is helped by [Juan Antonio] Flecha in the very final, to get in position. We never really had a team around him [Freire] for pulling the sprint. He's always finding his way; when he has one guy, he can do a lot."
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