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By Neal Rogers
For the hopeless romantics among us, a victory by Andrea Tafi in the second stage of the Dodge Tour de Georgia would have been a fairy tale with the classic happy-ending.
Tafi, the 38-year-old one-time Paris-Roubaix champion and always one of the sport’s most compelling characters, rolling off the front and soloing home for the win in what will be one of his last events as a professional. It was almost too good to be true — and it turns out it was.
Instead, following the end of Tafi’s long breakaway and a confusing finish where three different riders were declared the winner, Austrian Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner) was finally named victor in the Fayetteville-to-Rome stage on Wednesday. Stage 1 winner Robert Hunter maintained his overall race lead.
Wrolich surged ahead during a furious downhill sprint, finishing the 122.7-mile race in 4:46:29. Second place went to Spaniard Manuel Quinziato (Prodir-Saunier Duval), with American Lance Armstrong (Discovery) in third. Armstrong was using a 54-tooth chainring in hopes of repeating his win in Rome during stage 3 a year ago.
“You have a downhill sprint, so the more gear you have the better,” said the reigning Tour de Georgia champ. “It was actually Johan’s idea. I always use a bigger gear for the time trial. I tried my luck. Last year was almost a freakish thing, so it’s not as if I’m disappointed with third. It’s a tough little circuit. I’m feeling better. But [the time trial] tomorrow is the real test.”
Initially, Armstrong looked to be in good shape as the race made its way around Rome during the three 2.55-mile finishing circuit laps. The six-time Tour champion had a cadre of teammates with him, looking to Sheppard the team boss to another Rome win. But by the time the race reached the final moments of the final lap, Armstrong found himself alone, as the four trips up the tough Clocktower Hill climb had taken its toll on the rest of his team.
“When we came over the last hill, and Lance was alone, it was very difficult for him to control the situation,” recalled Wrolich. “I had Levi with me, and I just followed Lance. Levi attacked with about 350 meters to go. It was a good chance for me, because Lance had to close the gap and he jumped after Levi and it was much easier this way to jump from Lance’s wheel. I passed Lance with about 120 meters to go.
“I think he was a little bit on the limit, because he had to do a lot of work in the last kilometer. Discovery was very, very strong they worked hard the last three laps, but at the end he was still alone and it’s very difficult to control the race from the first position. Especially when it’s hard like today, because the wind was coming from the front, and it cost him a lot of power in the closing meters.”
Prior to the dramatic finish, the story of the race was Tafi (Prodir-Saunier Duval). Just as was the case the day before, Tafi took off on a long solo breakaway. The big difference was age. While Tuesday saw TIAA-CREF ‘s 23-year-old Dan Bowman roll off on a long solo break, this time the 38-year-old was the man off the front. He broke away 52.4 miles into the race, and wasn’t caught until 6.5 miles remained in the race.
“This race means a lot to me. It is one of the last races in my career,” said Tafi, after spending a few moments alone at the finish, his head and hands draped over his handlebars. “I gave it everything I had. I really wanted to excel, but Phonak and the field were very strong is chasing me down. Unfortunately, there were still a few kilometers to go, and it just wasn’t enough.”
The early portions of the race were marked by a few brief breakaways, but the peloton wasn’t letting anyone get very far, and the race was all together with 38.5 of the 122.7 miles covered.
The first big break of the day came at mile marker 44 when an eight-rider move that included Jason McCartney (Discovery), Niki Aebersold (Phonak), Christian Muller (CSC), Tafi, Michael Rich (Gerolsteiner), Nathan O’Neill (Navigators), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Sierra Nevada) and Craig Lewis (TIAA-CREF) took off.
The group quickly had a 20-second advantage on the field, but with Crédit Agricole setting the pace up front the race was all together again four miles later.
That set the stage for Tafi to take off on what would end up being a 63.8-mile solo effort across the rolling green countryside of rural Georgia. The Italian’s advantage rose quickly, and with 60 miles covered he was 3 minutes ahead of the peloton. The gap would eventually grow to 5:45 at the 82-mile mark. Finally the bunch came to life, initially led by Phonak, team of stage 1 winner Robbie Hunter.
While Tafi’s gap was slowly decreasing, first Aaron Olsen (Colavita-Sutter Home) and then Andy Schleck (CSC) peeled off the front. Schleck’s move was short lived, while Olsen managed to open a 1:05 advantage before he was eventually caught.
That left Tafi off the front alone once more, but he was soon reeled in bringing an end to any happy-ending story.
Next up here in Georgia: Stage 3 Rome time trial. Starting at 11 a.m. Thursday, racers will cover 18.6 miles, which includes the short but steep climb up Mount Alto. Expect a significant change in the general classification and be sure to keep track of it right here on VeloNews.com using our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW throughout the this critical time trial. To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window to get up-to-the-minute reports from VeloNews’s Neal Rogers and Jason Sumner.
Check again – There was some confusion about the day’s winner at the podium, as race officials apparently claimed Wrolich was wearing the wrong race number. While Wrolich, No. 56, did nothing wrong, race officials initially confused his number with that of his Gerolsteiner teammate Michael Rich, No. 54. After 10 minutes of deliberation, Wrolich was declared the official winner.
“They asked me why I chose the wrong number for the frame, and they said on the film it’s 54, but you can see on my frame and my jersey it is 56, so it’s not my mistake,” Wrolich said. “I have no idea what happened. I just went to the commisaire and said, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘No, no problem, I saw everything on the film,’ and there was no discussion about it. Maybe they had a wrong number in the computer. I don’t know how it happened.”
Land of the golf carts – In Peachtree City, the second town the race passed through during stage 2, thousands of spectators in golf carts lined the streets for miles. One estimate put the population of Peachtree City at 40,000 residents, with 11,000 of those owning golf carts.
Sizing things up – It’s no surprise that just about everyonewill be looking to Discovery when the real racing begins with Thursday’stime trial and then the mountains later in the week. Americans Bobby Julichand Levi Leipheimer both said they’d be keying off Lance Armstrong andhis boys when things start heating up in Georgia.“I think we have an okay team here, but we’ve had a lot of injuries,”answered Julich when asked to assess the relative strength of his CSC squad.“I’d like to have my wing man here, Jens Voight, but he’s expecting hisfourth child pretty soon. Normally he’d go up to Reno with me and trainlike we did last year. But with the kid coming it’s not possible. But wehave a good team here. We don’t have a Tour de France caliber team likeDiscovery, but obviously both of our teams are motivated.”Indeed, besides Armstrong the Discovery team includes likely Tour deFrance picks Jose Azevedo, Jose Luis Rubiera and Viatcheslav Ekimov.“When you bring a team like that, they are not trying to throw any curveballs,”continued Julich. “It’s obvious that they want to win. We’ll still raceour own race, though. Hopefully one of the top Americans will win the race.Hopefully that will be me.”Leipheimer also conceded that defending Tour de Georgia champ Armstrongis the favorite.“I’m not saying that he’s going to win, but he’s the guy everyone willwatch,” Leipheimer said, adding that his Gerolsteiner team isn’t nearlyas strong. “I don’t know if we can control the race the whole week, butit’s good enough to support me and get some results.”Veteran race announcer Phil Liggett also figures Armstrong is the manto watch, but he isn’t ready to just hand over the top prize in Georgiato the six-time Tour de France winner.“The course here is made for somebody like Lance with the short timetrial and a big hill climb,” Liggett said. “It’s a perfect race for peoplelike Lance. But your form has got to be in check and I’m not quite surewhether Lance is quite there yet. If not Armstrong, watch out for FloydLandis. I think he needs to test himself right now. Leipheimer won’t befar away either. I think it will be an American winner, that’s for sure.”
Navs here to play – Following what could best be described asa disappointing Tour de Georgia effort in 2004, the Navigators feel theyare a different team this go round. The team was worn down from a longstint in Europe a year ago, but team captain Nathan O’Neill says his guysare much better prepared this time.“This year the Navigators has a really serious GC team,” O’Neill said.“This is the best shot we’ve ever had at the GC. The guys are much morementally prepared and physically a lot fresher from the European campaign.We came back a couple weeks earlier. I think our chances are a lot betterthis year for sure.”O’Neill figures that his team’s best GC chances rest with climber CesarGrajales. The Colombian hasn’t done much racing this year because of visaproblems. In fact, after a solid effort at the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia,Grajales hasn’t raced at all because he didn’t get his issues sorted outin time for his team’s European campaign. Still O’Neill has faith in Grajales.“We’ve got a couple cards to play. No question that Cesar is going tobe one of the contenders for the climbing stages,” O’Neill said. “And ChrisBaldwin is certainly a good time trialist, and I’m pretty handy againstthe clock as well. We can handle ourselves and we have a couple of cardsthat we can play.”Like the rest of the U.S. teams, Navigators will be watching the movesof the ProTour powerhouses to set-up their race strategy.“We’ll key off Discovery, key off CSC,” O’Neill added. “I think theyare both here to tear it up. We just got to be careful these first fewdays and make sure that nothing gets away that’s too dangerous and changesthe dynamic too much.”
Dodge Leader’s Jersey: Robert Hunter (Phonak)
Maxxis Sprint Leader’s Jersey: Greg Henderson (Health Net-Maxxis)
Georgia Power KOM Leader’s Jersey: Andrea Tafi (Saunier Duval-Prodir)
GE Best Young Rider Leader’s Jersey: Mauro Santambrojio (LPR)
Aaron’s Most Aggressive Rider Jersey: Andrea Tafi (Saunier Duval-Prodir)