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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
Although the organizers of the Tour de France stacked all the mountain stages into the end of the race, their decision to put a relatively easy transitional stage right before the race’s second rest day gives the overall contenders a reasonably long time to recover between the Pyrénées and the Alps.
Either wind or tactics could have made stage 14 pretty tough, but after two hard days in the mountains, the majority of the peloton wasn’t eager to ride hard on Sunday. Still, the first two hours of the race were fast and difficult, while riders repeatedly attacked off the front to establish the day’s breakaway group.
The composition of the breakaway had to be just right before the peloton would relax and let it go. Many teams have yet to win a stage or even factor heavily in one, motivating them to get off the front for one of their last opportunities to stand on a podium. The tight competition for the green points jersey also meant the sprinters were watching carefully to make sure no one in the breakaway posed a threat. Stuart O’Grady doomed many of the potential breakaway groups because there was no way Robbie McEwen, Erik Zabel, or Thor Hushovd were going to let him get up the road to claim the day’s two intermediate sprints and possibly the points for the stage win.
Of the nine teams represented in the breakaway, only Crédit Agricole and Fassa Bortolo had already claimed stage wins this year. Euskaltel-Euskadi, T-Mobile, Phonak, and Liberty Seguros originally came to the Tour focused on supporting their team leaders for an assault on the yellow jersey. Now that T-Mobile is the only one left with a serious chance of a high overall placing, it was time for these other teams to change their focus and go on the hunt for stage wins.
While no one expected U.S. Postal Service to send a rider into today’s breakaway, today was one of the few days that a rider from the CSC team hasn’t been off the front of the peloton. Bjarne Riis is a very smart team director, and it’s likely he held his team back this afternoon. They already have a stage win from Ivan Basso, and with their team leader now looking to be Lance Armstrong’s No. 1 rival for the yellow jersey, it’s important for riders to save as much energy as they can so they are fresh and ready to support Basso in the Alps.
The combination of today’s relatively easy stage and the rest day tomorrow may result in the re-emergence of several riders who struggled in the Pyrénées. Team leaders like Jan Ullrich may find their legs, and domestiques from several teams may get the recovery they need to provide more support to their leaders in the Alps.
Meanwhile, the fact that Armstrong didn’t take the yellow jersey yesterday meant the U.S. Postal Service did not have to set the pace at the front of the peloton during stage 14. By taking the day relatively easy, they may very well be stronger in the Alps, too.