Ok- again I'm falling behind on the stage coverage... but I've been pretty busy, I swear.
Stage 3; Wind? Big time splits? Drama? Yep... check on all three! What should've been a fairly boring stage with a sprint at the end became a fight for survival for many of the contenders and certainly added to the drama surrounding Astana's team leadership questions. To sum up- as predicted, the race blew apart when the peloton hit the coastal area along the Mediterranean and Columbia set a blistering pace into the winds. Borrowing from the Bjarne Riis playbook, Columbia smashed the field with a full-on assault (though it was claimed to be just a mild acceleration) into the headwinds. This caused a major break in the field that caught almost all of the GC contenders unaware- except for Mr. Armstrong. Speculation swirled about this lucky "co-winky-dink" when Lance and former teammate George Hincapie- now ridig for Columbia- were seen chatting for several minutes before the split occurred. One unhappy dude was Alberto Contador, who happened to lose 41 seconds on the day and dropped to 4th place and 19 seconds behind Lance. Bruyneel tried to play it off as just good tactics, since Lance and the two other Astana riders in the break were seen working at the front with Columbia once the gap was established. I'm sure Alberto agreed with that decision... totally. So even though Cavendish netted another amazing sprint win in the end, the talk of the stage was about Lance's move closer to yellow and Contador's slide away from it. Team drama? Nah- I'm sure it was a very light and jovial evening at the team dinner, the night before the very critical team time trial... totally...
Stage 4- Team Time Trial; TTT's tend to create tons of drama and action "just because", but this year, it's on another level. First, the organizers dropped the limit on the amount of time you can lose- meaning if you finish 5min down, you are 5min in the hole. In the most recent versions of the TTT, losses were capped so that non-TT teams would not be too smashed by time losses. Well, that charity is now gone. Second thing, you add Astana into the mix with too many chiefs and not enough indians, all of'em looking to establish the "pecking order" within the team. The mood was electric and the rift in Astana's camp was totally evident, with Lance and Alberto warming up for the race with at least one other rider between them at all times. Any logical team director would want the two "leaders" to be side by side finalizing and prefecting strategy on such a crucial day... but I have a feeling that might've been akin to taking a match and lighting a blow torch and then stuffing that into an open gas can in an enclosed garage full of kerosene soaked rags... or sumpin' like that.
In the end, almost as could've been predicted, Astana took the convincing win and Lance came within fractions of a second of Yellow. Cancellara kept the jersey for another day, though it might only be for this last day. Saxo Bank managed to finish 3rd, keeping Cancellara in Yellow... but only barely. The real power ride of the day, in my opinion, came from Garmin-Slipstream- finishing second to Astana... but with only 5 riders! Seriously, they rode the TT of their lives to finish so strong with only 5 riders- though those 5 are some of the best TT riders in the world. After losing 4 teammates, they managed to stay focus on their jobs, worked incredibly well together and did not panic. That, friends, is not an easy feat and is something that they are getting far too little credit for. To that end, I say "KUDOS!"
Cadel Evans must've gone to bed grinding his teeth, since the Lotto team nearly imploded out of the blocks, losing Vandenbroeck in the early kilometers. You could nearly hear Cadel's blood pressure rising! His young, inexperienced team simply cracked under the weight of his GC hopes and the pressure of riding to support him. Sitting almost 3 minutes down now, his Tour has now become a much different one, as he now holds 35th place. Denis Menchov dropped down to 72nd at 3:52 down after having a disastrous TTT with the Rabo' squad. BBOX Bouygues Telecom completely ate dirt- literally- with 4 riders going off the road into a ditch. Lampre had some ripped skinsuits as well by the end of the day. The wind, as expected made a big difference on the day.
So now we have 5 Astana riders in the top 10 as the first week is drawing to a close and some of the first "real racing" is coming up. Can they continue to shell the rest of the field and walk away with the top 3 steps of the final Tour podium? It's beginning to smell like a possibility. The friendly rivalry between Columbia and Astana for the title of "world's best team" is looking a wee bit lopsided right now.
Tomorrow's Stage 5 is looking like it could turn into a repeat of Stage 3- crazy coastal winds could play havoc on the field, though I predict people will be a bit more attentive this time. It should end up in a field sprint, but it's hard to say who will have the better legs after such a hard day today. Maybe Farrar can finally get a stage win if Cavendish is feeling the TT aftershocks tomorrow. I guess we'll have to wait a little bit to find out...