If Columbia were smarting for being forced to work so hard on Sunday, they made the rest pay for it in the final 31 kilometres of Monday’s stage to La Grande Motte.
But why did they drive so hard to split the peloton when Mark Cavendish probably would have won a full field sprint anyway?
Well, Columbia had plenty to gain from making the move work. The day’s four-man break (Bouet, Dumoulin, Perez, De Kort), which had been clear since the first kilometre, was visible up ahead when Columbia began to ride hard, with around 31km to go.
Judging by the way Sunday’s stage panned out, Columbia would have been lumbered with the job of controlling the peloton until the finish anyway. When the bunch split, they had two main incentives to press on. They could stack already advantageous odds for the stage win insurmountably in Cavendish’s favour.
More crucially, there were 29 riders in that front group, with Thor Hushovd the only one likely to be a threat in the race for the green jersey. Tom Boonen, Daniele Bennati, Oscar Freire, Tyler Farrar and the rest would all be fighting for crumbs if the break stayed clear. Another victory for Cavendish would put them all at a considerable disadvantage. As it turned out, Sunday’s crash and Monday’s split have given Cavendish a 70-point lead over Freire, Boonen and Bennati. That isn’t a green jersey-winning lead, but it’s a heck of a head start.
Although it was not a windy day, the subtle change of direction made for an awkward crosswind and the wrong rider in the wrong place opened the gap. So Columbia rode. They rode hard, with a little help from an unlikely source, Skil-Shimano.
On Sunday Cavendish publicly named and shamed Kenny Van Hummel, claiming the Skil rider had shoved him in the argy-bargy near the finish. It turned out it wasn’t Van Hummel at all, but his team-mate, Piet Rooijakkers.
Nevertheless, Skil co-operated, partly because they had six riders in the front too. Another factor which enabled the break to succeed was the presence of race leader Fabian Cancellara. That meant Saxo Bank were in no hurry to chase, although come the finish they may have been regretting that decision.
Columbia got into the team time trial groove a day early and drilled it. At first it looked like the big losers were Garmin-Slipstream. The last thing they wanted was a split because they hoped a good team time trial in Montpellier on Tuesday would put Bradley Wiggins in yellow. As it turned out, the favourites for the overall classification lost out just as much.
ASTANA SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE
The real drama was the fact Lance Armstrong was in the front, while Alberto Contador was behind. Armstrong had Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia for company, both Johan Bruyneel signings, both loyal to the Belgian directeur sportif.
Armstrong didn’t do anything hasty. He watched and waited until it was clear Columbia were going to persist and the break had a chance of staying clear.
Then, with 15 kilometres to go, and with the gap holding at around 25 seconds, he moved to the front, raised his hand and made a circling motion to signal his team-mates into action. He may as well have let down Contador’s tyres.
Seeing the opportunity, the Bruyneel-loyal Astana riders lent a hand and with that extra bit of help the gap grew. Whatever they may now say to the contrary, Contador was being stitched up. There is now no doubt the team is split in two. Armstrong has gained the upper hand, and now leads Contador overall by 19 seconds.
At the finish, Cavendish won easily, although Hushovd gave it everything he had. Hushovd has finished fourth and second in the past two days, but his is a lone challenge at this stage. The next serious contender is Tyler Farrar, 40 points behind Cavendish.
Cancellara stretched his overall advantage to 33 seconds over Columbia’s Tony Martin, giving himself a good chance of staying in yellow tomorrow. Saxo Bank are not expected to win the 39-kilometre team time trial in Montpellier on Tuesday, but 33 seconds is a handy advantage to have, particularly if Columbia are a little leggy after all that work.
But you’d still have to fancy Columbia to do well enough to put the young German Martin in yellow. Wiggins is surely too far back now. Garmin may make up a minute on Saxo Bank, but can they beat Columbia by 38 seconds?
Then there is the possibility of Armstrong being back in yellow in Montpellier. He is third overall, best-placed of the Astana team. If Astana can beat Saxo Bank by 61 seconds and Columbia by eight, Armstrong will wear yellow for the first time since 2005.
However, given the divisions in the team, is there any guarantee they will have their heads on? Who knows what will happen?
One thing is for sure, Contador now has to turn the tables on Armstrong if he is to win this Tour de France. He may only be 19 seconds behind, but he has to find those 19 seconds somewhere.
It’s going to be 1986 and the internal fight between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond all over again.
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