95th Tour: Week 1 Review

by Jack  

I am writing this as I watch the Versus evening recap to today's stage 7. If you haven't been in front of the internet today, then you probably will be surprised by the fact that Manuel Beltran (Liquigas) has tested positive for EPO. Yet another black cloud has moved over the Tour de France. Just when we thought the dopers have lost, this news erupts. Here in America, it has always been innocent until proven guilty so I will reserve judgment until Beltran's B sample gets tested. But I am very, very disappointed for all cycling fans and for the rest of the peloton. Now on to the review...

Week 1 of the 2008 Tour has no doubt been one of the most exciting first weeks in recent history. Certainly I can't remember anything that can be compared. The organizers have completely rethought how the first week works in hopes of making the Tour more exciting. They've done that with great success. We no longer have to sit through 7 or 8 days of rather monotonous racing just to get to the first mountain stage.

My pick for the win, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) proved to me and to the world that he is here to play. He easily won the uphill sprint for stage 1 and the honors to wear the Tour's first yellow jersey. The poor sprinters only had a couple of stages to go after and they blew one of them by letting the breakaway stay away. A beneficiary of that Stage 3 bundle was American Will Frishkorn. The Garmin-Chipotle rider had a great chance for the win but was beaten by Frenchman Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis). As a consolation, he was awarded the most aggressive rider and Garmin moved into the lead in the team classification.

Speaking of sprinter's, we can't forget about the God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) himself. Follow me as I move back to Stage 2. Hushovd won the sprint easily as he was the only sprinter able to stay up front in another uphill finish, though it wasn't as hard as Stage 1's finish.

The first time trial of the Tour, usually the first appointment for the GC contenders, happened early, on Stage 4. Other than Cadel Evan's steady ride, everything else was a surprise. Let's start with the winner, German Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), who produced the ride of his life. Sure, he's won other time trials but this is the Tour! I salute Schumacher for a great ride and the inheritance of the yellow jersey. Luxembourger Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia) was also a surprise in 2nd place. He just nipped 3rd place David Millar (Team Garmin-Chipotle) and is poised to make a run at the yellow jersey.

There are some disappointments in Stage 4. Let's start with Valverde. Many expected him to produce a good ride after what he showed at the Dauphiné but he ended up being one of the big losers. Even Damiano Cunego (Lampre) rode faster! Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) was also much slower than I thought. Devolder is known for doing good races against the clock but failed to live up to those expectations.

Stage 5 brought the first mass sprint of this year's Tour and fast man Mark Cavendish (Team Columbia) showed he is the fastest of them all by easily beating Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and old man Erik Zabel (Milram). These poor sprinters many not see another mass sprint until Paris. Let's hope they get over the big mountains first!

The first mountaintop finish came on Stage 6. Again, the organizers wanted to spice up the first week by including the climb up to Super-Besse as they traverse the Massif Central. Most felt that this would not bring out the full fireworks since the Pyrenees still loom on the horizon but it will certainly tell who is in form and who is not. Italian big mouth Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval - Scott) showed his class by winning the sprint over Valverde and Evans. Not much changed in the overall for the GC contenders but Schumacher did lose the yellow jersey to Kirchen thanks to a sudden fall in the last 3 km. Ironically, Schumacher's front wheel overlapped Kirchen's and was brought down with his teammate. Cunego disappointed me by not being able to keep up with the leaders. He lost a half minute and continues to slip down the standings.

Today's Stage 7 was supposed to be a transitional stage but ended up being the most exciting stage of the Tour. Thanks to cyclingfans, I was able to follow the Tour on streaming video at work so I don't have to wait until the Versus show ends to know what happened. Splits in the peloton caused some tense moments as Cunego was caught up in a crash and missed being in the front peloton. Knowing this, Team CSC and Columbia upped the pace in order to distance themselves. At times the pace was so high, CSC almost dropped Carlos Sastre! Thanks to the Lampre team, Cunego was able to make it back to the main group but the damage had already been done. All of the effort needed to return to the group caused him to slip off the pace at the end and he again lost over a half a minute to the other favorites. Cunego's slide continues. Valverde teammate Luis Leon Sanchez won today's stage after spending a lot of time in an earlier break and then attacking the peloton with 4 km to go. The rest of the GC stayed the same, for now.

As week 1 ends, I'm going to stick to my earlier prediction. I still see Valverde making up the minute to Evans in the mountains and overtaking him in the overall standings. I do, however, see Kirchen fighting like a dog to keep his yellow jersey as long as possible. But unfortunately for him, the Tour stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps are just too hard and long for someone like him. But he may prove all of us wrong. We'll have to wait and see.

I hope that Cunego can get to the level that's needed to stay with the leaders. I am still positive about him because I believe his form might be on the up and up again. If you remember in the Tour de Suisse, he was not amongst the best and that could be an indication that he let off his training a bit so that he can arrive at the highest level when it counts, in the high mountains.

Week 2 of the Tour brings us the Pyrenees. A lumpy stage on Saturday brings us to a couple of Cat 1's on Sunday. But with a downhill finish, don't expect the top favorites to make huge attacks especially knowing that the next day will be one of the hardest stages of this year's Tour. Week 2 ends with the Alps beginning. Happy Tour!

Riccardo Riccò winning Stage 6. Credit: AFP

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