In one of the most exciting Tour stages in recent memory, big Thor Hushovd conquered the cobblestones to easily outsprint a select group of some of the Tour’s biggest names. His victory the ideal salve for the bitter disappointment of the day before’s neutralised non-sprint finish.
When the Stage 3 tribute to Paris-Roubaix was announced late last year, Cycling fans the world over began drooling at the prospect. Just as the Giro’s Stage 7 on the strade bianche looked to animate the race whilst tipping it’s cap to that nation’s rich cycling history (something it did in spades, realising one of the race’s greatest ever stages), the 207km Stage 3 from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut delivered everything the race organisers and the spectators had hoped for.
The teams had had more than seven months to prepare for the stage. All the top GC contenders had ridden the cobbled sectors in preparation, allowing them to fine tune both their equipment and their tactics, including team selection. That’s why it came as no surprise to see the top teams working furiously to position their protected rider ahead of each cobbled sector and for some of the spring classics biggest names used to shepherd them out of trouble. Cancellara, Flecha and Hincapie - three of the riders we’re used to seeing battle for the win on the cobbles in April, now working at the service of Schleck, Wiggins and Evans.
There were countless displays of heroics today. From the brave seven who broke away early, especially Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) who rode like a beast over the cobbled sections, dropping his breakaway companions and threatening victory before being pegged back by the elite group of Hushovd, Evans, Andy Schleck, Cancellara and Geraint Thomas just 6km from the finish.
There was brilliance from Saxo Bank across the board - O’Grady and Voight put the entire peloton in the hurt bag as they ground out an infernal pace in the kilometres leading up to the first cobbled sector. Then Cancellara smashed off the front, Andy Schcleck in tow, looking to put as much time into as many of the GC contenders as he possibly could on behalf of his diminutive team mate. Schleck too, a mountain specialist, showed enormous fortitude to not just follow the wheel of Spartacus but to drive through and take turns, snatching back the precious seconds so carelessly conceded in the prologue.
Contador rode impressively in terrain terribly unfamiliar. He was prominent at times, pushing hard in the gutter, fighting for position with little team support while O’Grady and Voight turned the screws. Then after he was caught behind the crash by Frank Schleck, he found a group, gritted his teeth and rode the cobbles like a real rouleur - no Iban Mayo cobbled capitulation for this Grand Tour champ. Chapeau.
The old dog Armstrong showed plenty of grit on the bike and an enormous amount of class off it afterwards. On his limit as he fought for position behind the drive of Saxo Bank he was unable to stay close enough to the front to avoid the chaos after the Schleck crash. He worked hard behind the Cancellara group before puncturing. Got a wheel from a team mate and chased hard. The image of him emerging from the dust in amongst cars and pushing hard to bridge to the group up front is one I will treasure.
The ride of the World Champion was worth the price of admission alone. It was smart. Probably the smartest ride on the day. His team were great. They worked constantly to keep him well positioned, Bookwalter and Hincapie especially. But Evans also seized the initiative whenever he needed to, seen on numerous occasions racing towards the front just before there was a sharp corner looming. That’s the difference John Lelangue has made - meticulous preparation for a rider with the nous to act on it. And when Cancellara and Schleck went, Evans was on them in a flash. He’s now the best placed of the genuine GC contenders - with 30 seconds on Andy Schleck and 61 seconds over Contador - and in a very strong tactical position ahead of the Alps. Smart.
Team Sky were at their most impressive yet in a Grand Tour. A rider in the break. A fantastic ride by Geraint Thomas into the White Jersey. And Wiggins showing enormous panache in both word and deed before, during and after the stage.
There are some that think the cobbles have no place in a Grand Tour. Fortunately, they’re a tiny minority and they aren’t the race organisers. Who is to say that the only characteristics of a Tour de France winner should be just a climber or time triallist or any combination of the two? Why shouldn’t a powerful and smart bike handler who can also climb and time trial not be able to use all of their skills to win? And why is it that those people whose knowledge of the Tour only extends as far back as the Armstrong years think that the ideal race is a procession over 3,600km of hot mix and should be decided by the guy who climbs the last hill fastest? I don’t. And fortunately, I’m in the vast majority.
It’s rare for a non-mountain stage to capture the imagination of cycling fans like tonight’s 207km Stage 3 from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut has. After yesterday’s salute to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, today’s stage pays tribute to the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix - presenting the riders with 13.2km of pavé to deal with in seven separate sectors, with the final nasty sector just 10km from the finish.
The last time the Tour served up cobblestones was Stage 3 in 2004 and serious GC contender Iban Mayo had a shocker - crashing and losing nearly 4 minutes. Conversely, the evergreen Robbie McEwen will have happier memories of that stage, taking third in the sprint behind Jean-Patrick Nazon and snatching the Maillot Jaune by one second.
All the big contenders for the overall have spent time reconnoitering the stage, with Alberto Contador even spending time riding the pavé under the watchful eye of former Paris-Roubaix winner, Peter Van Petegem. The potential to lose serious chunks of time has many of the big guns worried. All of them have a team mate armed solely with the responsibility of piloting them safely across the cobbles: Popyvich for Armstrong, Vinokourov for Contador, Cancellara for the Schlecks, Hincapie for Evans, and Flecha for Wiggins. It’s not just the pavé that they’ll need to be attentive on though, as the ferocity of the racing for position leading into each sector will be just as likely to bring riders undone. It should be brilliant!
My tip: a supremely motivated and very cranky Thor Hushovd will triumph.
With 30+ km/h winds whipping in from the NNW in the closing stages of the 196.5km Stage 3, the inevitable happened - the peloton split, echelons formed and a lot of riders lost serious amounts of time. The big surprise was that apart from Lance Armstrong, every other serious GC contender missed the split. Inexcusable.
Saxo Bank had done a decent job early, motivated to ensure Cancellara stayed in yellow and keeping the early escapees within sight. As expected, Team Columbia moved towards the front in the closing 50kms to ensure the race came back together for another shot at a bunch sprint for Cav. Surprisingly, none of the other sprinters teams joined them to share the work - no doubt the Stage 4 TTT weighing on their mind. Annoyed by this, Team Columbia dropped the hammer and blew the race to bits. And Cav won the bunch kick from Thor Hushovd after another outstanding lead out from Mark Renshaw.
The biggest beneficiary of the day, however, was Armstrong. Catapaulting into 3rd on GC and now 19 seconds ahead of team mate Contador who, ironically, was the rider alledged to have lost the wheel and allowed the carnage to unfold. At the finish, Armstrong simply said that he had been in the right place at the right time. “You know what the wind’s doing, you see a turn [in the road is] coming, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have to go to the front.” And that’s one of the great things about bike racing, oftentimes an old head will beat out young legs.
On paper the 196.5km Stage 3 looks fairly unremarkable. A few lumps early and couple of Category 4 climbs may animate the usual suspects looking for TV air-time and a KOM point or 3; before a pancake flat final 70kms sets the teams of the sprinters up for another bunch sprint. It’s the kind of parcours that would have the likes of Cav licking his lips. But an unseen danger lurks for the inattentive GC hopeful in those last 70kms - La Mistral. If this famous wind is blowing from the north expect to see chaos as the bunch splits and echelons form. Serious time can be lost if you miss the split and expect to see the big engines at Astana, Columbia, Saxo and Rabobank take advantage if they see a rival floundering out the back. Evans should be well looked after by his big Belgian team mates - they eat this stuff for breakfast. I fancy that Hushovd will get closer than he did yesterday, Boonen too. But Cav should ride the Columbia-HTC express all the way to the finish for his second stage win in 2009.