After the first five stages of the 3435 kilometre Tour De France made you think it could hardly get much worse for Australia’s hopes in this year’s race, well last night on a dangerously wet and calamitous sixth stage to Barcelona, they most certainly did.
It’s bad enough that even before last night Cadel Evans who’s finished runner-up for the past two years is now surely practicing his “up yours” exit speech to quit his hapless Silence-Lotto team at the end of the current Pro Tour season. Even before he put in a terrific effort last night to finish ninth in a heart pounding bunch sprint that saw a storming late surge by sprinter Thor Hushovd to take the stage, Evans General Classification (GC) hopes were looking decidedly dodgy.
Now occupying 29th place and just one second off thee minutes down on the two leaders sharing the same time, Evans pre-race optimism that his Budget-rent a rider Silence-Lotto outfit might actually show a lot more bottle and throttle to give him half-decent support fell apart even before they hit the mountains. A disastrous team time trial and several other missteps since the race started in Monaco last Saturday; means short of a miracle he’s not going to find the means to claw back those minutes while hoping his rival mountain goats can’t match him. He’s not a dynamic “leave them in your wake” mountaineer, so how does he stage a breakaway of any significance?
But the real disaster to hit our race hopes last night was firstly a serious prang by Michael Rogers; who was brought down in the wet as a chasing and split peloton was attempting to catch a breakaway heading towards Barcelona. By the time a sore and shaken Rogers got back in the saddle and took his time getting to the finish as he wondered if he was going to survive beyond this stage, his hopes for a high GC finish were also shot to pieces. He ended up 13 minutes and 14 seconds down to finish 175th. For the Team Columbia veteran now at 159th and 14.45 in arrears, all he can do is look to provide support to his other high calibre team-mates along the way to Paris if he can last the journey.
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The other Aussie to hit the deck in the same prang with Rogers, was Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler. Earlier in the season he was the world’s number one ranked road rider. Given his overall strength and ability he wouldn’t have gone missing if he had contested the final 2km uphill sprint finish in Barcelona. But then had he been around he would have been charged with helping deliver a stage win for team-mate and eventual winner Hushovd. Like Rogers and Evans, Haussler is now also well back in the GC some 10 minutes behind.
Another big name casualty last night was Tom Boonen, whose wheel may have gone from under him in the closing kilometres on the kind of white lines he’s perhaps less familiar with after getting a last minute reprieve to race following his latest cocaine out of competition positive test. In fact his late inclusion led to Australia’s Allan Davis being flicked to unceremoniously make way for him in the Quick Step team, which has led to Davis now unhappily watching the race from the comfort of his Bundaberg home. So far the talented Boonen has looked a shadow of himself and it remains to be seen if he is going to dish up any kind of competition in the bunch sprints against the all-conquering Mark Cavendish.
Despite two stunning stage wins, conditions were very much working against the UK sprinting bombshell on the sixth stage. Now that the mountains tower before him before the Tour takes its first rest day on Monday, Cavendish like most of his sprinting fraternity will be pedalling for mere survival until Sunday.
That’s most certainly a luxury Evans can ill afford as he now tries to spring some kind of attack designed to peg back those three minutes somewhere in the mountains. Whether that’s over the night three nights or he bides his time until later in the race, either way he and some of the others have to try and rattle the cages of those at the top of the GC. With that in mind it makes for these next three stages offering us the prospect of some of the best and most attacking moves of the race in the Pyrenees.
Starting with tonight’s mountain trek into Andorra that brutally ends with a Highest Classification (Hors Category) climb, will Evans try to see if Armstrong has the climbing legs to stay with him and Contador, and the likes of Andy and Frank Schleck and last year’s winner Carlos Sastre? It say something for the wonderfully torturous mentality behind throwing everything at these professional masochists, that not only do they end this stage with a brute of a climb in going from sea level Barcelona to a 2240 metre altitude finish, it’s also the Tour’s longest stage. Add to that it’s likely to again be wet and tonight’s rapid mountain descents aren’t just hairy but life threatening.
On the subject of Haussler, SBS cycling commentator David McKenzie should be a lot more au-fait with the ancestry of our Aussie contingent when overnight he referred to the 25 year-old Inverell born and bred cyclist as an “adopted Aussie”. There’s nothing adopted about the son of a German father who’s family live in the north-west NSW town he calls home. He might have a German registered racing licence until later this year when he will switch back to Australia, but that doesn’t disqualify him from being true blue.