Stage 5 of the 2006 Tour de France played out according to the typical plan: A small breakaway group sat out front all day, only to be reeled in and passed a few miles before the finish. While this is a normal occurrence, what's unusual is that not a single one of these breakaway attempts has been successful so far. Typically, fortune shines on the front group at least once in the first week of the Tour, but the nature of the race this year has changed all that.
It all started with the Prologue
A short prologue time trial, like this year's 4.3-mile (seven-kilometer) effort, meant that the sprinters, the prologue specialists, and the overall contenders all started the first road stage within 30 seconds of the yellow jersey. Last year, the opening effort of the Tour de France was a 11.8-mile (19-kilometer) individual time trial, and the sprinters lost too much time to be able to claim the jersey by earning time bonuses at the finishes of the stages in the first week. With so many motivated racers within spitting distance of the yellow jersey this time around, they have no interest in letting a breakaway finish the stage minutes ahead of the pack and eliminate their chances of leading the race.
No King Sprinter
Not only are the top five finishers from last year's race missing from the event this year, but the peloton is without a King Sprinter as well. Robbie McEwen has won two stages, but there's no one who's clearly the fastest sprinter in the race. With Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Tom Boonen (Quickstep), Erik Zabel (Milram), and Daniele Bennati (Lampre) all gunning for stage wins, and reasonably equal in power and speed, there's no single man or team dominating the mad dash to the finish.
In years past, a dominant sprinter's team, like Mario Cipollini's Saeco squad or Alessandro Petacchi's Fassa Bortolo boys, controlled the pace in the final 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the stages in the first week. Because they took it upon themselves to chase down the breakaway, the chances the group would make it to the finish line actually increased. What we're seeing this year is a more concerted effort from four to five teams, and there's almost no way that a small group of two-to-five men can stay ahead with greater collective horsepower leading the chase from behind.
No Dominant Contender
In years when everyone knew that the Tour de France was going to come down to a contest between Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and a handful of other contenders, there wasn't too much risk in letting a breakaway gain several minutes in the first week. Thomas Voeckler did it in 2004 when his five-man breakaway finished 12 minutes ahead of the field, and Stuart O'Grady benefited in 2001 when he grabbed the yellow jersey after his 11-man breakaway gained 35 minutes on the peloton. Those breakaways were dangerous and men from them wore the yellow jersey for much of the race, but everyone knew the big names were going to take back massive chunks of time in the time trials and mountain stages.
This year, no one really knows what's going to happen in the long time trials or big mountain stages, so none of the teams want to risk letting anyone grab a big lead. That means everyone is motivated to ride a little harder in the pack and do the work of chasing the breakaways down. It's likely that we'll see the same scenario play out again tomorrow in Stage 6, and then the tactics are going to change considerably after that.
Saturday's stage is the first long individual time trial, which will be the first big opportunity for the real yellow jersey contenders to show their cards. By Sunday morning, fewer than 20 riders are likely to be within two minutes of the yellow jersey, and that will increase the chances that the peloton will relax and let a breakaway survive to the finish line early next week.
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