CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '08
Stage 14 - (Saturday) July 19th, Nîmes to Digne les Bains, 194.5 km Flat Stage
Sweet Smell of Success
Digne-les-Bains, the préfecture of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, is a town with a medieval heart and an even older history. In the early 19th century Digne was a luncheon stop for Napoléon. Today it's a popular tourist stop for French and foreign visitors, with only one of its attractions being the thermal baths that justify the -les-Bains part of its name.
This region with its ancient towns and the Alps looming in the near distance is famous for huge fields of sweet smelling lavender. Often portrayed by artists, lavender has fragrant, pale purple flowers with many different varieties. It is an extremely versatile plant with numerous uses including candied sweets, herbs, scents and cooking. It yields a nectar to produce high quality honey for beekeepers and is used for many medicinal applications to benefit from its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Lull Before the Storm
For the GC and Mountain Points contenders today is the final “rest” before the serious racing gets under way tomorrow. For many of the riders there was a sense of impending agony as they watched the lofty heights of the Alps getting ever closer.
Today could have gone one of two ways. There were just two Cat 4 climbs but the road is gently ascending to Digne les Bains for practically the entire stage. This endless grind was mostly a ‘big ring' affair but the relentless hot sun did nothing to make the ride comfortable.
Early in the day a group of over twenty riders pulled away. This move did not amuse the peloton and so the effort was short lived. However the catch saw a series of attacks that finally saw Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), William Bonnet (Crédit Agricole), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne) establish a solid lead that exceeded 5 minutes 100kms into the race. However the sprinters teams were more than interested in making the most of this last day before the mountains and just 10kms later the leaders suddenly had two minutes sliced away from their lead.
The break was not giving in so easily and were able to hold their lead until 30kms to go. Behind them the sprinters teams were driving the pace and under the relentless sun had the entire peloton stretched out in one long line.
Get the Message
In spite of the drug related issues of this Tour the road side crowds were still to be seen in huge numbers. Up the modest climbs and through numerous ancient towns and villages, thousands upon thousands of eager fans waited for a brief glimpse of their heroes. The message is clear. Cycling, and especially the Tour, is a greatly loved sport and most people seem to believe that it is only tainted by a few rotten eggs.
Unfortunately the corporate world is less forgiving. Today Team Barloworld announced its withdrawal from the sport following their rider Duenas returning a positive drug test. Barloworld has a zero tolerance policy towards drugs and is following through with the result that all of the team riders and staff will shortly be out of a job. One man has wreaked great destruction. There are rumblings that Saunier Duval may also close down the team.
Surely those who plan on cheating, along with those that help them to cheat, must be getting the message. You destroy yourself, the team and sully the sport in general. Also, with increasingly harsh civil laws focussing on drugs being introduced in many countries, the prospect of jail time is very real. Get the message - ride clean or get out.
As the multicolored peloton concentrated on its pursuit of the break the riders probably failed to appreciate the sheer beauty of the spectacle. Under a pristine blue sky the rugged landscape of Provence and tree lined roads passed through beautiful communities packed with spectators in holiday mood. At every turn you could create a postcard photograph capturing the essence of France.
Last Gasp Effort
With the gap hovering at about one minute with 30kms to go, Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne) attacked the break and quickly started to expand his advantage over the peloton. Unfortunately it was clear all day that the sprinters wanted this day to get their revenge on Mark Cavendish. Gutiérrez nevertheless set a punishing pace with his last gasp effort. The inevitable happened with 11kms to go. And just as inevitably, the junction was the signal for counter-attacks.
Normally it is the “little fish” that try to grab some glory in these situations but this time all hell broke loose as the GC contenders started attacking. As a result Cadel Evans was in the thick of the action forced to defend his one second lead.
At the rear of the peloton a real “big fish”, Mark Cavendish, was unceremoniously dropped on the final Cat 4 climb just 9kms away from the finish line. The door was now wide open for the sprinters and it was Oscar Friere, resplendent in his Green Jersey, who took the victory. For him, that really was the sweet smell of success.
Stage winner Oscar Freire [ Image ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
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