It's always pleasant to poke a bit of fun at CSC-Saxo Bank, with its Outward Bound-like team-building exercises, mandated by director Bjarne Riis, an earnest Dane with a slightly checkered past. But the truth is, they're a class bunch. Davis Phinney, the ex-Tour de France stage winner with whom I happened to be watching today's stage, recalled being stiffed on the eve of the Tour of California prologue earlier this year: an American rider who was supposed to speak before a fundraiser for the Davis Phinney Foundation bailed on short notice.
Friday's flat 200-km Stage 6 through wine country came down to another riotous mass sprint taken, surprisingly, by Tom Boonen, a Belgian of Quickstep-Innergetic who much prefers to be escorted toward the finish with a more orderly lead-out than he was provided. But Boonen ham-and-egged it, Robbie McEwen-style, for his 10th win of the season, his first of this Tour. Say goodbye to the sprinters for a while. On Saturday the boys must get over a serrated colossus called the Col de la Colombiere. Boonen, Thor Hushovd and their ilk will be more concerned with making the time cut than winning the stage.
I know today's stage went to Thor Hushovd, the ripped Norseman whose Christmas-ham-sized quads quivered under the green Lycra of Credit Agricole as he accepted bouquets from the podium girls in Joigny.
We knew some of the flatlanders would be shed on Thursday's Stage 5, the Tour's first foray into mountainous country. More surprising was the fabric and epidermis shed by pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, who hit the deck hard 25 km from the finish of the rippling, 184-km run from Chablis to Autun. As a splintered field approached the finish line, there was drama at either end of the race. Out front, the dashing Filippo Pozzato of Team Liquigas shot up the left side of the road, barely managing to hold off Rabobank's Oscar Freire for the win. With that resolved, all eyes turned to the clock, to see how much time (and blood) Vinokourov had lost.
Yes, Tuesday's Stage 3 into Compiegne featured an electrifying finish, with race leader Fabian Cancellara of Team CSC schooling the sprinters, throwing down a vicious acceleration 700 meters from the finish line, then holding off the muscle-bound likes of Erik Zabel, Tom Boonen and Robert Forster. To me, the biggest story of the day was not Cancellara's breathtaking speed at the finish, but the stately, unhurried, club-ride pace set by the peloton in the hours before the thrilling denouement. This was the slowest stage in recent memory. As I will explain later, that's a good thing.