Posted by Editor on 02/9/06
Tour de Langkawi: Team Navigators Stage 7 Report
Stage 7 - Muar to Kota Tinggi 188.2 km
With four stages to go, South Africa's David George seems well positioned to hold the yellow leader's jersey, and capture one of the early season's most coveted prizes. Today's 188.2 km stage is the longest of the Tour, but without any major climbs, the most any of the attacking GC contestants could hope for was a breakdown in George's protection, that could set up an escape on the rolling terrain of the last 90km. Nevertheless, an early break would force the South Africans to take control, and expend the energy his opponents hoped would put a kink in the armor.
Once again, the action began with the drop of the starter's flag, and a cavalcade of attacks stretched the peloton to the breaking point. Eventually, the right combination would coalesce, and 9 riders fled the enclave of the peloton. The Navigators Insurance boys were active in the mix, and this time it was Bernard Van Ulden making the definitive escape. The experienced and cagey Elio Aggiano was in for LPR, along with three Brits, Evan Oliphant (Recycling), Matt Brammeier, and national champ Russell Downing representing Great Britain, the Frenchmen, Anthony Ravard (Bouygues Telecom) and Renaud Dion (Ag2r), Landboukrediet-Colnago's Sven Renders, and the Relax rider, Raul Garcia, who was 8:42 back on GC.
With 170 km to go, South Africa set a comfortable pace, conserving what energy they could, and knowing that if the gap became too large, Selle Italia and CA would have to begin thinking about their own Classification positions. The nine leaders were working well together, and all were strong and focused. Garcia was the man with most to gain, but all nine were committed, and rolling a dedicated pace. Navigators' Van Ulden, competing for the first time in an international professional race outside of North America, was composed, fluid, and powerful in the lead group, but had the benefit of knowing that he was the one man with the leaders who was in the position of protecting a GC rider back in the field.
The gap grew at a steady pace, and reached nearly 8 minutes as the field began the up and down roller coaster roads of the last 100km. By now, what began as a gentle drizzle, had turned to a raging downpour, and visibility was almost nil. Van Ulden and Renders crossed wheels, resulting in a hard crash, but both rejoined the lead group with little problem. Van Ulden's left Ergo lever was trashed, leaving him with no small ring or front brake, but he chose to continue on his bike rather than take the risk of riding a spare that was not quite his fit.
With the advantage nearly 8 minutes, Team Japan made an unexpected appearance at the front of the peloton. The Japanese team, composed mostly of Bridgestone riders, took control of the bunch with one or two South Africans contributing as well. The Japan team did not have a pure sprinter, but they kept a very high pace, and for the first time since the escape, the gap began to reverse. At 30 km the margin was just under 4 minutes, and now the sprinters' teams had found some motivation. Panaria sent their Orange Express to the helm, and soon Credit Agricole offered some assistance. Perhaps feeling left out, or maybe a little shame after yesterday's ambivalence, the German Wiesenhof team came to the front with about 20 km to go.
The gap was now just under 2 minutes, the rain was pouring hard again, and the fox was chasing the hare at full steam. Ten kilometers to go, and the gap was 50+ seconds, and the bookies would have been having a field day guessing the outcome. Five to go, and 20 seconds, but no let up at the front...or from the chase. A disco dancing finish with a 110 degree turn at 1km lay ahead...Van Ulden still had no front brake, and the field was going to be tightly bunched. Four km to go, and Navigators Insurance's Mark Walters pulls up flat. At this speed there was no chance of riding it out to the 3km mark. A quick change and immediate help from Milne and Swindlehurst, and Walters made it back to the bunch with 2 km to go. As expected, Brammeier attacks the front group and is countered by Van Ulden, but Aggiano, the cagey veteran, catches the Navigators man's wheel, and slings off towards the finish. The leaders are inside 500 meters...but so is the chase. Aggiano holds for the win, and Downing comes around Van Ulden as the field swallows up the rest of the breakaway.
The effervescent Van Ulden was thrilled with his third placed finish in his first foray in the International "big league" and the team was satisfied to see team leader Grajales within reach of the podium with three days remaining.
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