Posted by Editoress on 07/25/03
Tour de l'Abitibi - Stages 4 & 5
Canadian National Time Trial Champion Kevin Lacombe (Equipe Quebec) took back the leader's jersey from team mate Raphael Tremblay after the unique individual time trial on stage four, and continues to lead following the 83.5 kilometre road stage from Senneterre to Val d'Or later the same day. However, his lead over French National rider Anthony Jaunet shrunk from 31 seconds to 20 seconds between stages four and five, as the French sprinter continues to gobble up time bonuses. Jaunet moved from sixth to fourth and, if he continues to take time bonuses at the same rate, could be threatening for the leader's jersey shortly.
With the hub of the race in Val d'Or, each day the riders start at one of the surrounding towns and ride back to Val d'Or to finish with a varying number of laps on a 2.2 kilometre circuit around the downtown. With this region of northern Quebec being particularly flat, the stages come down to field sprints, with the exceptions of the opening team time trial and the individual time trial. Breakaways rarely succeeed, thus, it becomes a competition between the time trialists (who usually can't sprint particularly well) who build up a gap in the races against the clock, and the sprinters, who whittle the lead down with time bonuses during and at the end of each stage.
Lacombe's Equipe Quebec squad took the lead in the team time trial, almost losing it in stage three when France's Mathieu Chiocca took enough time bonuses to match Lacombe's time. However, Tremblay had taken a 1 second (third place) intermediate time bonus on the stage, and squeaked into a one second lead.
Lacombe finished second to Team USA's Steven Cozza, 13 seconds behind the American team captain. Cozza, a superb time trialist himself, would probably have been in the overall lead at this point, had his team not suffered a poor showing in the team trial. Cozza finished fifth overall last year, and fourth in the time trial, after breaking his clip-on bars early in last year's stage.
The individual time trial is unique - it begins underground in a mine shaft, 78 metres underground, and the riders do the first 500 metres up a wet, low tunnel with an average grade of 17% before bursting out into daylight. The logistics of the stage are complicated, with riders being ferried down in groups on low slung open mining carts. Once they arrive at the bottom (where it is at least 10 degrees Celcius cooler), they are hustled into a room with heaters to await their start. Before the start they are called to an exercise bike in the warm room, where they get precisely 5 minutes to ride, and then wrapped in a blanket and escorted out to the start, where they get an additional 5 minutes on their own bike (mounted on a trainer) before starting.
The tunnel is lit a regular intervals, but is basically dark, and the pavement is wet and slippery - riders are warned to stay to either the left or right side, and do spin out if they wander to the middle. It is steep from the get-go,.and riders who do not make proper gear selection generally blow up by the halfway point. The enclosed space creates some interesting sound effects, with the rumble of disc wheels sounding exactly like the approach of an underground subway train. Once the riders exit the tunnel they complete a 12.4 kilometre loop above ground to finish at the entrance to the tunnel (what I want to see is downhillers race into the tunnel, crashing into big foam pads at the bottom...).
"I expected to do well in the time trial" explained Cozza. "I've been riding well (in time trials) lately, and won the time trial at the Trophee Morbihan in France a while ago. I was really motivated to do well here after after the problems last year. I love this course, with the mine - it is the best time trial course I have ever done. It is too bad about the team time trial, or I would be higher in the rankings."
Lacombe wasn't quite as pleased about his ride, saying "it was good, but the hill was very slippery. I had a hard climb because my wheel slipped a few times and I had trouble getting a rhythm until I got out of the mine. Once I got going I was pushing very hard - I wanted to be dead at the line."
While Lacombe is happy to regain the Brown Jersey, he recognizes that it will be a difficult job to keep it. "There are many of the same teams as last year, but there are more good riders on those teams, with many who could win a stage. The French and the Belgian riders are here for the second year, and they know about the sprint finishes; you can tell."
The second stage of the day had no surprises, other than the cloudbursts that drenched the peloton for a few minutes on a regular basis, with the sun popping out immediately afterwards. A number of riders attempted to form breakaways before the race entered Val d'Or, but Quebec, France and the other major teams shut them down almost instantly.
On the last of 6 laps around the finishing circuit, Wim van Rooey (Belgium-Sweet Paradise) broke away with Jaunet to finish four seconds clear of the peloton. van Rooey took the stage win, but Jaunet's second place garnered him 6 seconds which, together with the 5 seconds he had picked up in intermediate sprints moved him to within 20 seconds of Lacombe. Jaunet's team mate Chiocca outkicked Lacombe to deny the race leader the seconds for third place. With today's 116.4 kilometre stage from Amos to Val d'Or offering up to 6 seconds in intermediate sprints and 12 seconds for a stage win, Jaunet could conceivably be within 2 seconds of the lead by the end of the day.
- the Abitibi region is Canada's largest gold mining area. The La CitÃƒÂ© de l'Or mine was closed in 1985 after 50 years of production, having produced a staggering 4.5 million ounces of gold. It was opened to the public for tours in 1995, and became part of the race in 2001.
- one thing that becomes quickly apparent to visitors to the race is the number of lovely young local ladies associated with the event. Each team has an 'Ambassadoress' associated with it to help the riders and team with local information. The riders were wrapped in blankets and escorted by young ladies during their warm up for the time trial. This is something of a local tradition, aided and abetted by the fact that the ratio of women to men in Val d'Or is not equal - one local journalist said that the ratio is as high as 4 to 1! Naturally, the racers aren't complaining too much about the situation... (It must also be noted that the young women are very good at their duties)
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