Shaken, Stirred, and Dumped
After the short prologue time trial and the chaos of the first week, the first long individual time trial of the 2006 Tour de France was supposed to sort out the leaderboard and clear up any questions about the identities of the real yellow jersey contenders. And while the leaderboard was severely shaken up, and a few potential challengers dumped out of contention, there are as many questions today as there are answers.
The T-Mobile team put forth a huge show of force today, moving four riders into the top ten overall, and six of their seven total riders are now in the top 20 overall. Serguei Gonchar, the stage winner and new bearer of the yellow jersey, is not a threat to win the Tour de France, however. That role has to go to his teammate, Andreas Kloden, who finished second to Lance Armstrong in the 2004 edition of this race. The outstanding performances from his teammates shows that they are an exceptionally strong squad, which may come in handy for Kloden as long as their strength doesn’t evaporate in the mountains.
The big individual winner on the day, besides Gonchar, was Floyd Landis. The Phonak leader blazed to a second-place finish on the stage, despite having to stop and swap bikes. It’s a credit to his development into a team leader that he remained calm and focused through the adversity. As we saw last year with Michael Rasmussen, changing bikes or having problems in a time trial can make a rider’s performance unravel if he lets the pressure overwhelm him. Landis took care of the problem and then got right back into his rhythm. As a result, he’s now about a minute ahead of all his chief rivals for the yellow jersey.
Even though it doesn’t appear that American Levi Leipheimer had any mechanical or illness problems today, his Tour de France hopes unraveled anyway. Normally a strong time trial rider, Leipheimer struggled all the way through today’s 32.3-mile (52-kilometer) test, and he’s now more than six minutes behind in the overall classification. And while he’s also a good climber in the mountains, he has quite a hole to dig himself out of. The only thing that could work to Levi’s favor is that he may be given some latitude to go out in a long breakaway, whereas the field would have kept him on a short leash if he had done better in today’s time trial. That might give him a chance to either get back in the race for the podium or at maybe win a stage.
Bobby Julich (CSC), on the other hand, would gladly switch places with Leipheimer because at least the Gerolsteiner rider will get to start Stage 8 on Monday. Julich crashed out of the Tour today in much the same way he did back in 1999. It was Stage 8 that year as well, when the American went too fast into a corner and lost control of his bike. Fortunately, Julich was able to walk to the ambulance, and though he had to withdraw from the race, he appears to have escaped serious injury.
So, what about Discovery Channel? Well, today wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped for riders like Paolo Savoldelli and George Hincapie, but fortunately they’re still within 90 seconds of Landis in the overall classification. The deficits are bigger than they would have liked, but they’re still manageable. One thing that works in their favor is that most of the contenders for the yellow jersey are grouped within 50-90 seconds behind Landis, which means teams are likely to cooperate in an effort to apply pressure to the Phonak team in the Pyrenees; they all have a lot to gain by leaving Landis behind and gaining time on him before the next time trial.
The general classification was shaken and stirred today, but the end result was a different mixture than many people, including me, predicted. I was pretty sure Landis would do well, but I also expected Leipheimer and Hincapie to fare much better. Kloden, Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), and Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears) showed they came to the Tour prepared to bid for the yellow jersey, yet Leipheimer and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel Euskadi) revealed that they don’t have the same form that led them to success in the Dauphine Libere race in June. And what of T-Mobile? Decapitated by the sudden loss of Jan Ullrich, they come back to life with six heads! If Kloden can capitalize on the strength of his team, could this be his year to win the Tour de France?
We’ll have to wait three days to find out more about the yellow jersey contenders. There’s a sprinters’ stage tomorrow, followed by a rest day Monday, and another sprinters’ stage on Tuesday. Then the race enters the Pyrenees. The first hard mountain stage will be the next big test for the diminishing number of men with legitimate chances to wear the yellow jersey into Paris.
Free Video: Check out footage from the ADT Event Center velodrome as Discovery Channel riders George Hincapie, Yaroslav Popovych, and Paolo Savoldelli optimize their aero positions. Available only at www.trainright.com.