OK, it was exciting, I admit. Yet it was again the old script – a break goes, they are left to ride on, dreaming; then the yellow jersey is threatened and his team has to work to keep the time gap down; and then the organised chaos of the serious chase begins, with the sprinters’ teams aiming to catch the break a few kays out of town… you know this script, it’s almost the same on every flat stage. But I said it was exciting, too, didn’t I?
And it was compelling viewing. Although TV commentator and ex-racer Paul Sherwen gets confused at times with his archers, his arrows and his arrow-makers, let alone his kapelles and his kerkes, it’s strangely watchable. The scenery flashes by, the riders eat and take their ‘comfort stops’; they crash; they get on with the chase. There are intermediate sprints, time bonuses and speculation about who is working and who isn’t; and that marvellous mobile medico, who seemed to give Thor excellent service if this stage is any indication. Perhaps Thor gets strategic rather than medical advice from the doc? They’ll all be queuing up for his service on the next stage!
Which brings us to the sharp end of the race. It was a wide road with a few obstacles but nothing like the twists and turns and pave of yesterday. In the “old days” it would have been Cipo’s team taking control to keep the speed up for the last 7-10 kays. But with Cipo a glorious fading memory and his successor, Alessandro, sidelined, it seemed more like chaos than control. It looked like Quickstep tried to take control, moving up on the right, but they couldn’t; it looked also like Milram would do the same, and they did – exactly the same, moving up then f-f-fading away… at one stage Predictor Lotto’s one-man-train took over and drove the pace, but it’s obvious that McEwen’s men don’t have the firepower to take control, even if they wanted to; or even to lead Robbie into position, it seems. You could see McEwen being guided through the pack, sandwiched left and right, squeezing past fading lead-out men; but he couldn’t launch, there was always someone blocking and inevitably he was too far back and pushed aside. It wasn’t his day for that magical opening and his trademark opportunistic kick.
Perhaps they are injured, or simply tired? Predictor-Lotto may indeed be resting on their first-up stage win laurels, waiting now to support Cadel in the approaching Alps. But Quickstep don’t have that excuse.
Nor do Milram, although again Zabel was mixing it. Instead it was Credit Agricole who took up the final lead-out duties with Julian Dean a powerhouse in the Steegman’s style, launching Thor’s thunderbolt into an open road. Hunter did great work to almost grab the prize but he left it just a bit too late. What with all of the switching, lurching and bumping going on it certainly looked exciting; although that long camera lens does compress the perspective somewhat dramatically, it was hairy. And Thor took his first win of this tour.
Now for question time. Firstly, was it in the Quickstep script that Steegmans beat Boonen over the line, or is Boonen somewhat off-colour? I say the latter, but only Tom can really say.
Secondly, will Thor grab an intermediate or 2, win the next stage and take yellow off Cancellara’s shoulders? What do I think? Looking at the next stage with its 8 categorised (but admittedly not severe) climbs I see some pigs flying past…
I’d be looking to CSC to block Thor, but I suspect the rolling-road opportunists will be salivating at the thought of a few hills and already plotting their escape. Which of course means taking time off Cancellara as well as big Thor. Either CSC will dig deep and defend grimly or we’ll see someone, probably not an overall contender, bolt from the pack and seize the day – and the yellow jersey.