I rode the final 48.8 kms into Carcassonne this morning, and it was hot and dry and exhausting. It didn’t matter that as I looked out of my basement window forty minutes into the ordeal, all I could see was the sun reflecting off the snow. Even a few rogue flakes were wafting their way in through the window, opened in an effort to create a breeze and somehow simulate the outdoor experience. Even if it had been even slightly successful, the breeze that I would have been feeling on the real stage 12 would have felt considerably warmer than what was coming through the window. I was grateful for the chilled air, though, as the temperature in the ‘cave’ was soaring.
The original stage 12 ran on July 14, Bastille Day, and was one of the longer stages of that year’s tour rounding out at 211.5 km. Mainly flat, certainly for the final stretch that I ride anyway, you can be certain that the peloton was driving a brisk pace, undoubtedly spurred on by a couple of Frenchmen desperate for glory on the ‘day of days’ for the French nation. In fact it was not to be a Frenchman that won the day, rather a Ukranian on the Discovery team known as Popo, (you all know him), with an average speed of 46.15 kph. I mean that is fast! It’s all the more incredible because Popo was part of the only breakaway to stick that began at kilometre 98. He, and three others, never looked back.
Riding in searing heat, temperatures were over 40c that day, the breakaway that included Popovych was the third of the day. Both of the preceding attempts were reeled in when the next climb came along, but the peloton misjudged the third and ultimately successful breakaway that consisted of Oscar Freire, Alesandro Ballan, Christophe Le Mevel and of course Yaroslav. After only 4 km they had a 30″ advantage, and after only another 4 km they were up to 1’50” and nothing seemed to be slowing them down. At 140 km the lead had leapt to 4’10” and the peloton, led by Phonak, settled in to a rhythm that for the most part did not threaten the lead four.
With only 40 km to go, and now within the 48.8 km that I am familiar with, Milram began to help Phonak try and reel the pretenders in. Popo and the other three were having none of it and with the remaining distance now down to only 25 km the gap had climbed even more to 4’40”. The best-placed rider in the escape group was Popovych; he began the day 9’00” behind Landis. He attacked Freire, Ballan and Le Mevel 8 km before the finish. Le Mevel quickly dropped out of the lead group. Freire and Ballan tried their luck with escapes but Popovych was the most consistent in the lead group. He tried repeatedly and, three kilometres from the finish, he made the winning move. Popovych won the stage, 24” ahead of Ballan. It is the second Ukrainian stage victory of the 2006 Tour.
An American by the name of Floyd Landis was in yellow that day, and despite finishing almost five minutes behind Popo he kept the yellow jersey into stage 13. History of course confirmed that Landis would become the final yellow jersey wearer, another American claiming the title that for the previous seven years had been won by one Lance Armstrong. If the French, or any other non-Amercian for that matter, had been desperately hoping for a Yank-free podium, they were going to be denied that for another year. The podium photos from that July day will always show Landis on the top step, but as we all know he had his title revoked a year later. It was shocking that the champion had been stripped of his crown. Never before had it happened, (well it did, but it was back in 1904 and the crime was taking the train to complete a stage ahead of his rivals), and one was sure that it would never happen again.
Until, that is, a young Spaniard with a penchant for playing cowboy as he crossed the line, ate a steak that was low on taste and high on clenbuterol. Jury is still out on this one and it will probably be some time before it is completely settled, but let’s just say it is yet another high profile disappointment to hit the sport we love.