That is the question for Fabian Cancellara right now. Should he and his RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team carry on working hard to defend the yellow jersey he won in last Saturday’s Tour de France prologue? Or should they cede the jersey to a breakaway, and save their energies to help team leader Fränk Schleck (and his deputies Andreas Klöden and Chris Horner) in the mountain stages that begin this coming Saturday?
They are legitimate questions, especially after seeing how hard Cancellara had to ride on Wednesday to lead the peloton’s pursuit of current runner-up Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quick Step when the Frenchman broke clear 10 kilometers from the stage 4 finish in Rouen. And ditto with Horner when Chavanel made his solo burst 5 kilometers from the end of stage 3 in Boulogne-sur-Mer. And that’s beside all the tempo riding being done day after day after day by The Shack’s true workhorses, Haimar Zubeldia, Jens Voigt, Yaroslav Popovych, Maxime Monfort and Tony Gallopin.
Team directeur sportif Alain Gallopin (Tony’s uncle) has said he’s ready to give up the jersey. “I don’t want to kill my team,” he said. “Now, to have the jersey one more day or one day less doesn’t change anything,” As for Cancellara, he has expressed his hope that he’ll still be in yellow when the Tour enters his native Switzerland on Sunday—even though that’s highly unlikely given the severity of the climb to the finish of Saturday’s stage at La Planche des Belle-Filles.
The dilemma is the same every year for a team that acquires the maillot jaune early in the Tour and is not eager to wear down its domestiques too soon, however prestigious the honor of having the race leadership. This was a subject I wrote about in my 2004 book about the Tour, “23 Days in July,” from which I want to use the following extract to show how the question was addressed eight years.
In that Tour, following a good prologue in Liège (where this week’s Tour also began) and a winning ride in a team time trial, the yellow jersey was on the back of Lance Armstrong. Here’s what happened on Day 6 of that Tour—and what might happen on Day 6 of this Tour should RadioShack, the successor to Armstrong’s then U.S. Postal Service squad, decide not defend the jersey.
The title of this extracted chapter is: The Yellow Jersey. The day began in the cathedral city of Amiens and headed south to Chartres, a similar city south of the Seine River, not far from where this week’s Day 6 starts on Thursday. First of all, I spoke about the Tour itself….
I join the spectators outside the cathedral on the Rue Victor Hugo—a street named for the nineteenth-century French poet and novelist who described Amiens Cathedral as “a marvel.” If he were here today, he might well marvel at le Tour. As an advocate for social justice and the common man, Hugo would appreciate this sporting event that democratically carouses through the streets of peasant villages as well as the cities of the rich, becoming, for the moment, an integral part of everyone’s life. And he would enjoy the enthusiasm for the race I hear in the voices of these noontime fans, who are happy to watch the Tour departing their city before taking in a quick lunch, maybe the regional specialties of duck pâté and leek pie, washed down with a bottle of blonde Arrageoise beer. The locals are so excited by the race they even applaud the press vehicles of France-Soir, L’Équipe, and their local Voix-du-Nord newspaper that depart Amiens just ahead of the riders.
The first few miles of every road stage are like a parade, as the peloton rides behind the slow-moving, bright-red sedan of race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, until clearing the city limits. So the pack is moving slowly when it turns into the Rue Victor Hugo, and the fans can easily pick out the different riders, particularly those in distinctively colored jerseys. They all applaud the man near the front, Arm- strong, who has a broad smile on his face and a yellow, long-sleeved rainproof top over his brand-new yellow jersey. They get a longer look at another rider, Thomas Voeckler of the Brioches La Boulangère team, who’s wearing the blue-white-and-red jersey that’s awarded annually to the winner of the French national championship. Voeckler has just suffered a flat rear tire, and he stops at the corner, removes the rear wheel, and waits for his team car to drive up with a spare. He’s probably thinking “better now than later” as he appraises the puncture, for the 25-year-old Frenchman has big hopes for this day. His team mechanic changes the wheel and pushes Voeckler back into action. He has an easy task of joining his fellow competitors be- fore they all reach the rolling start, four miles down the road, where Leblanc tells his driver to accelerate as he waves a small tricolor flag, signaling to the riders that the stage from Amiens to Chartres is under way.
As soon as the flag drops, another man wearing a tricolor jersey, Dutch champion Erik Dekker of the Rabobank team, lifts himself out of the saddle, stands on the pedals, and sprints away from the field. He’s soon caught, but his acceleration triggers a series of attacks, fierce and unrelenting, most of them featuring riders from the French teams, Boulangère, Cofidis, and Fdjeux.com, along with CSC of Denmark. “Every day of the Tour is a world championship,” says Armstrong. “You’ve got about eighteen teams that want to win a stage, so there’s always somebody playing to win.”
About six miles into the race, a breakaway group of eight riders forms and moves a hundred yards clear. Hincapie is among them. Perhaps this is a chance for the 31-year-old New Yorker, who lives in North Carolina, to gain a little prestige beyond that of being Armstrong’s “best teammate.” Because his boss is now wearing the yellow jersey of race leadership, Hincapie does not have to work in a breakaway. Every team respects this basic protocol of the sport, that a leader’s teammate can race defensively by riding at the back of any group. And since Hincapie is lying second to Armstrong in the overall standings, he would automatically take over the yellow jersey if his group managed to stay clear of the pack until the finish.
Hincapie was in a similar break in the opening week of the 1998 Tour between the Breton ports of Roscoff and Lorient, where he came within two seconds of taking the yellow jersey. That was his last chance for Tour glory; every year since then he has been a selfless worker for Armstrong. Today, though, Hincapie has been given the green light by Armstrong and Bruyneel to go with a break like this one, which has no riders who could pose a long-term risk to the de- fending champion’s bid for another Tour win.
Unfortunately, says Bruyneel, “when George got into that break, the T-Mobiles chased.” That’s because Ullrich’s team was reluctant to give any of Armstrong’s men a free ride. As a result, Hincapie’s eight-man move is caught just before a small hill, where the pack finally slows down a little. The stage is still less than 10 miles old, but when the road levels out after the short climb, the day’s winning break moves clear. Fdjeux rider Sandy Casar is the first to accelerate. He wants to make a big impression on this stage because some 70 miles down the road, in his hometown of Mantes-la-Jolie, his family and friends are waiting for him, brandishing a twenty-foot-wide banner that says, “Salut Sandy Casar.”
There are many miles and challenges before reaching Mantes though. First, Casar has to prolong his attack on this windswept ridge that commands wide views over the green, undulating countryside of Picardy. He’s soon joined by two men who have figured in many long-distance breaks over the years: CSC’s Jakob Piil and Cofidis’s Stuart O’Grady of Australia. Then, two other chasers manage to cross the growing gap—Sweden’s Magnus Bäckstedt of Alessio- Bianchi, who’s a renowned hard worker, and the ambitious Voeckler. Within a couple of miles, after speeding downhill into the village of Croissy-sur-Celle, the five men have a half-minute lead.
“We decided to let this move go clear. It was ideal for us,” explains Postal’s Bruyneel, “five strong riders from five different teams and none of them dangerous on general classification.” The Postal director knows that each of the five men in the break has up to eight teammates in the pack, perhaps forty riders in all, who will now ride defensively by disrupting the efforts of rival teams to organize a chase.
As a result, Bruyneel’s team restores order by moving to the front of the peloton, and setting a steady pace that’s just fast enough to discourage an all-out pursuit. This allows the break to quickly gain ground: five minutes as they crest a short climb at Crèvecoeur-le-Grand, ten minutes as they pass the massive yet unfinished Gothic cathedral in Beauvais, and almost 15 minutes as Casar and Voeckler lead the breakaways over the Category 4 Mont des Fourches hill, the day’s high point at 813 feet elevation, 44 miles into the stage. Will their lead keep on growing? At what point does it start to matter?
There are no guarantees that the move by O’Grady, Piil, Bäckstedt, Casar, and Voeckler will carry them to the finish of this Amiens–Chartres stage. In fact, that looks unlikely when three miles after the Mont des Fourches summit the Lotto, Quick Step, and Gerolsteiner teammates of sprinters McEwen, Boonen, and Danilo Hondo suddenly increase the pace of the peloton. If they don’t get a chase organized now, they won’t get another chance.
So the three teams decide to make a classic cycling move, the echelon: On the dead straight road, with the wind coming from the left, the first rider moves at great speed along the left center of the road. His colleagues then form an angled pace line, each one slightly be- hind and just to the right of the rider in front, so that each gets some shelter from the wind. Once the first rider has ridden hard for per- haps five seconds, he drops back a few feet to allow the rider on his right to take his place. As each rider drops back after his turn at the front, they form a parallel line of riders, with the front line moving to the left and forward, and the second line of riders taking shelter from the first and moving back and to the right. From above, you would see a constant counterclockwise rotation of the two lines, similar to the formation geese use when flying against the wind.
If the echelon, which is probably composed of twenty to thirty riders, is formed correctly, it is impossible for any others to jump into it. The trailing riders are forced to ride single file in the right-hand gutter—getting no shelter from the wind and working twice as hard as those in the echelon. They can start a second echelon, which forms maybe 100 yards behind the first. That’s what happens right now, and a half-dozen echelons are soon spaced at regular intervals down the road.
But the echelons are abandoned when the course bears left onto a more sheltered road that leads into a town with several sharp turns. O’Grady and his four companions, now riding in steady rain that has just started, retain a healthy lead that reaches 17:20 with 40 miles to go.
Of the five breakaways, the highest placed is Thomas Voeckler, the young French racer who started the stage exactly three minutes behind Armstrong, 59th in the overall standings. Second best is O’Grady, 120th overall and a full 3 minutes, 49 seconds behind Voeckler. The youthful French champion’s claim to the race leadership becomes a certainty 10 miles out of Chartres, where the five are still together, with a fifteen-minute lead. That’s when the riders catch their first glimpse of the twin 375-foot-high spires of the city’s breathtaking cathedral that appears to be floating above the wheat fields to their left. “To do its beauty justice,” wrote Victor Hugo, “you’d need whole volumes and millions of exclamation points.” By the time the breakaways reach the base of the black crags on which the cathedral stands, they have each made separate, but failed attacks. The five come together again as they top the ridge on the opposite side of the valley from the cathedral, and prepare to sprint for the stage win. All of them are tired from their five hours at the head of the race, battered by the wind, numbed by the rain, and depleted by the many climbs. The giant Bäckstedt, six-four, 198 pounds, is hurting so bad he can make only a token acceleration before dropping his head in exhaustion. But O’Grady uses the Swede’s short effort to get up to sprinting speed, and he battles past a dogged Piil to take a jubilant victory.
O’Grady is thrilled. “This is a massive relief after everything that’s happened in the last few months,” he says, referring to a doping scandal that enveloped his Cofidis team all year long. Although the Aussie, new to the team, is not implicated, several of his teammates have been sacked after admitting to using banned drugs. O’Grady said that in April he lived through “the hardest ten days of my life,” when his beloved grandfather died, he crashed in a race and broke a rib, and his team suspended its entire racing program because the media furor over the doping scandal became so bad.
While O’Grady talks about “going back to basics” and “racing with new heart” since he returned to Europe after his grandfather’s funeral in Australia, Voeckler, the new leader of the Tour, says he’s only just realized what he can achieve in cycling. “Last year, in my first Tour, I was overwhelmed by the speed,” he admits. “Things only started to click at the Classique des Alps race a few weeks before this year’s Tour.”
But nothing comes close to wearing the yellow jersey. And today, after his group finishes twelve and a half minutes ahead of the peloton, Voeckler gets the thrill of pulling the Tour leader’s yellow jersey over his champion’s tricolor outfit.
Why yellow? The idea came to race founder and director Henri Desgrange during the 1919 Tour, the thirteenth one he had organized, after he heard complaints from roadside spectators that they had a hard time identifying the man leading the race. Desgrange decided to award a special jersey, and he chose yellow because the newspaper he edited, L’Auto, which also sponsored the Tour, was then printed on yellow newsprint. Today, his “HD” initials adorn the shoulders of every yellow jersey, reminding us of his pioneering efforts.
Desgrange was a larger-than-life figure who helped create the Tour’s mythical image by penning fiery prose on that yellow newsprint. He once wrote a cyclist’s training manual called La Tête et les Jambes (“The Head and the Legs”), which spelled out the need for a successful racer to have a smart brain as well as strong legs. He would have appreciated Voeckler’s strategic attitude. After donning the yellow jersey, with a nearly ten-minute lead over the now sixth-placed Armstrong, the talkative “Ti-Blan” says, “I heard Armstrong say he wasn’t going to defend the jersey, so that gave me some ideas.”
Besides Desgrange, credit for creating the first Tour also goes to Géo Lefèvre, L’Auto’s lead cycling writer in 1903. Lefèvre’s ideas probably evolved when he attended the Lycée Marceau, an elite high school here in Chartres. Like anyone else seeing the city’s exquisite cathedral for the first time, he couldn’t help but be inspired by the beauty, de- sign, and immense scale of a structure built almost a thousand years ago. Bold projects breed bold ideas.
At a November 1902 meeting in the Paris offices of their newspaper, editor-in-chief Desgrange asked for ways to boost the paper’s fortunes, as the publication was in danger of losing a circulation war to its rival sports daily, Le Vélo. In response, the then 25-year-old Lefèvre outlined a plan for a new bike race “longer and harder than all those that already exist,” and encompassing the whole country. “And what name will this race have?” asked a skeptical Desgrange. Lefèvre shot back, “Le Tour de France, pardi!”
Now, a century later, le Tour has finished in Chartres for the first time, and another 25-year-old Frenchman, Thomas Voeckler, has realized his bold idea of leading the race that Géo conceived. Voeckler is the new maillot jaune, the yellow jersey.
—Extracted from “23 Days in July,” by John Wilcockson, published by Da Capo Press.
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John will be commenting Thursday on the outcome of stage 5