CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '07
Stage 2 - July 9th, Dunkerque to Gent (Belgium), 167 km
Chalk and Cheese
For the past two days the Tour experienced an incredible reception by the British public who turned out in their millions to see the race ‘live'. In a country where football rules, cycling is a minority sport that rarely sees ‘prime time'. A very small portion of those who turned out to see the Tour pass through their towns and villages truly understood the race or knew any of the leading riders. No matter, in England a world class sporting event is truly appreciated for its spectacle and the sight of well trained athletes competing at full bore.
Today the race returns to mainland Europe and the historical epicenter of cycle racing, Flanders . The ‘S' shaped course from Dunkirk to Ghent is ‘pan flat' but, just as with the famous Spring classics that are played out annually in this region, the North Sea winds can play havoc with the peloton.
In terms of cycling knowledge today's road-side crowds will be very different from those in England . Like chalk and cheese, where the British public only have a cursory knowledge of the sport, the Flemish fans have an intimate and in-depth knowledge of a sport that is in their blood. Nationally Tom Boonen will be the big favorite to win in Ghent but within the peloton there are many other very capable ‘locals' who will be riding through or near their home towns. Each rider will have their fan clubs enthusiastically lining the roads with posters, vocal support and plenty of beer to wile away the waiting hours.
The Tour's last stage finish in Gent was 1958, Andre Darrigade sprints to the stage 1 victory [ Image ©: CR Archive ]
Considering the cycle racing heritage of Flanders it is fair to say that Ghent is its spiritual capital. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that the Tour has only visited this magnificent city twice, 1951 and 1958. The 1958 Ghent stage finish was won by André Darrigade from a three man break. Darrigade was one of the greatest roadman sprinters ever and during his Tour career he won 17 stages, wore the Yellow Jersey 18 times and claimed the Green Points Jersey twice. His big ‘Achilles Heel' was the mountains which always saw him floundering well behind the leaders. Today Darrigade would particularly identify with Robbie McEwen who as an ‘honorary' local (he lives near Ghent ) can speak Flemish and knows today's roads intimately. Providing the injuries sustained in his crash coming into Canterbury are not causing him pain today, he will be a tough man to beat should it come down to a bunch gallop.
Trivia question du jour:
In 1958 André Darrigade won five Tour stages (including the Ghent stage), wore the Yellow Jersey for 5 days and came 3rd in the Green Points Jersey competition.
In what year was the Green Points Jersey introduced into the Tour?
Email your answer HERE
Mercifully the classic raw Flandrian weather was absent for most of the day. Rain at the start soon gave way to clear skies as Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel Euskadi), Cédric Hervé (Agritubel) and Marcel Sieberg (Milram) eased themselves off the front of the peloton. They gained almost a six minute advantage while CSC maintained a “relaxed pace” at the front of the peloton. With about 80kms to go other teams started to move up, increased the pace imperceptively and started the inevitable erosion of the leaders advantage.
With about 50kms to go dark foreboding clouds were massing on the horizon and a very light rain started to fall. At this point many riders decided to take a natural break in a brief stretch of countryside devoid of spectators. Apparently yesterday in England there were so many spectators that Fabian Wegmann commented that “there were so many people that it was actually hard to take natural breaks. It is a stupid situation. You are cycling along and hope that after the next curve there are no fans so you can take a good old pee."
Having emptied their bladders the sprinters teams started to move forward to protect their leaders on what were now becoming slick roads. McEwen in particular was seen to be taking precautions to avoid a repeat of yesterday's unfortunate spill. Meanwhile there was the matter of the three leaders to contend with who were still 3:00 minutes up with 35km to go. As three Tour novices the leaders committed the fatal error of starting to attack each other too far out from the finish. With 25km to go Sieberg made a lone effort that was soon closed down by his two break companions. Now the cooperation between the three was disturbed and their willingness to put everything into the break diminished.
With 20km to go the threat of torrential rain moved away and the break seemed to be gaining a new, cooperative and urgent character. It would seem that the Director Sportifs had given their Tour ‘newbies' a stern talking to through their race radios. With the peloton now in full cry behind them the leaders were moving very fast but only held a delicate 15 second advantage with 5kms to go.
Once again the break fractured when Pérez tried a loner. It was all for nothing as the bunch swallowed up all three with just 3kms to go. A classic Flemish sprint was now in full flight. Desperation and chaos ripped the bunch in half as a huge pile of riders hit the deck. About twenty five riders were all that remained at the front to contest the finish. For Tom Boonen and Belgian honor it was Quick Step all over the front. On the line Tom Boonen was “beaten” by his lead-out man Gert Steegmans but both looked extremely happy with the result.
Tom Boonen congratulates Quick Step teammate Gaart Steegmans ( Image ©: www.gazzetta.it )
Having fallen within the 3km mark the ravaged bunch limped in without losing any time. As they came over the line in small groups we saw race leader Fabian Cancellara holding his left arm as he was one of the first to hit the road. A little later Freddie Rodriguez, also looking injured and without his helmet, came in alone. Hopefully these and any other riders injured during the sprint he will be able to continue tomorrow. Compared to the relative discipline of yesterday's Canterbury finish the Ghent ‘massacre' was like the difference between chalk and cheese.
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