Many thought that today’s 173-km (107.5-mile) 4th Stage going from Lorient to the short but steep ramp up the Mur-de-Bretagne had Philippe Gilbert’s name written all over it. This is exactly the type of course that the current dominant Belgium national champion has built his reputation on. And given his latest form, winning just about everything he’s entered this year, including the first stage of this Tour, few would have argued the inevitability of that wisdom. He’s an exceptional one-day classics rider, possessing a lethal kick on steep uphill finishes after a grueling ride.
Sure enough, Gilbert’s Omega Pharma Lotto team lined up toward the end, in front of the peloton with no thought of hiding their obvious intent, getting ready to drag the peloton along at the pace they planned to dictate, to establish the launching pad for their man. But several of the world’s best riders weren’t buying in to that storyline having thoughts of writing an ending with their name as the hero of today’s chapter. BMC’s Cadel Evans, Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador, Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, and, somewhat surprisingly, Sky’s Rigoberto Uran put their names ahead of Gilbert’s on today’s leader board, with a guns-blazing finale that made the 4 hours, 11 minutes and 39 seconds of rainy, flat cycling worth every minute to endure.
Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden saw this prestigious front group of about 9 riders lining up to challenge for the stage and likely sensed they’d be gapping the field a bit in their drive for the line. He quickly latched on and pedaled his way into 10th place on the stage and now, thanks to intelligent riding, sits in 5th place in the overall general classification, as his group gapped the next bunch of 3 riders by 6 secs and a much bigger bunch by 8. Unfortunately our other GC contenders, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, and Janez Brajkovic were caught up in that second group and lost a little ground today to Evans who looks stronger every day. These little time differences so far, though, are almost insignificant and all 4 are still looking great on the GC. In baseball terms, this is still pretty much the 1st inning with the score tied; some players are showing how hard they can swing a bat and run the bases, but the game hasn’t really begun yet.
Our GC Contenders after Stage 4:
5th Andreas Klöden (GER) 00’ 10”
14th Chris Horner (USA) 00’ 18”
15th Levi Leipheimer (USA) 00’ 18”
16th Janez Brajkovic (SLO) 00’ 18”
As of tonight, Garmin-Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd is still in the leader’s maillot juane with BMC’s Evans, lurking just 1-second back. Leopard-Trek’s Frank Schleck moves into 3rd, 4 seconds back, with Garmin’s David Millar holding down 4th place 8 seconds back. Andreas is 10 seconds back in 5th, with Sky’s Bradley Wiggins (10 secs back), Geraint Thomas (12 secs back), Edvald Boasson Hagen (12 secs back), and Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck and Jakob Fuglsang rounding out the top 10, also 12 seconds back.
Some big names still have some holes to dig out of, like: Ivan Basso 01’ 03”, Damiano Cunego 01’ 12”, and Alberto Contador at 01’ 42” back. And barring mishap, there’s no real place to make time up until perhaps the weekend. Saturday’s 189-km Stage 8, has 4 categorized climbs that finish with a cat 3 uphill ramp. You can bet Mr. Contador won’t have much of a smile on his face until then. These are not the big mountains were Alberto shines, but Saxo Bank has to be looking at every bump on the stage profiles where Alberto might eek out an advantage. A lot of people say that if it were anyone else but Alberto they’d be in a panic right now, but his abilities are so superior that 1 min 42 is just a blip on the radar. I beg to differ. Looking back at his record here, he owns two of the top 5 slimmest victory margins of all time at the Tour de France. He beat Cadel in 2007 by 23 seconds, and Andy Schleck in 2010 by 39 seconds. So okay, maybe I wouldn’t say he and Saxo Bank are in a full on panic just yet; maybe it’s more on the order of consternation, alarm, and trepidation. What I would say is, if I were him I’d be gunning for the weekend and every contender better be prepared. I know our guys will be.
By George Hurst, staff writer