How does that saying go? A friend of my friend is my friend unless my friend is Lance Armstrong?
As much as I beat up on Lance for grandstanding and truth-avoidance, I can’t point the finger at him for cheating Hincapie out of the yellow jersey today. If anything, it was Lance’s “friends” — Team Astana — who dictated keeping Hincapie within shouting range during the stage. I think Astana, or at least Lance and Bruyneel, really wanted George to take the yellow — by a few seconds. Not by a few minutes. And there lay the rub.
When the Hincapie group threatened to expand its margin over the peloton too far, their breakaway forced Astana’s hand. George may not be the best climber in the Tour, but he’s a good one. In this Tour, uncertainty rules. The prospect of giving a rider of Hincapie’s capability a multi-minute lead with the Alps looming was just too much for Astana and race favorite Alberto Contador.
Lance would have been happy for Hincapie to take yellow by a narrow margin. But the question was: How do you keep it “manageable?”
So Lance and Astana decided to goose the pace and stabilize the Hincapie group’s margin. For what Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen estimated at about an hour, Team Astana moved the peloton along with their machine-like power and efficiency.
That may have been all well and good for Hincapie, as long as the margin was enough to give him yellow. Unfortunately, it opened the door to a wild card, which in this case turned out to be Garmin-Slipstream.
Garmin is a strong team. I’m not sure why it would want to deprive Hincapie of yellow. Perhaps it had no reason at all. Perhaps it just wanted to put pressure on Astana after the latter’s long pull in hopes of pooping out the team a bit before tomorrow’s supposedly killer mountain stage (I say supposedly because so far in this Tour, that prospect has turned to mush time after time with a listless peloton).
Whatever the reason, Astana’s calculated pull turned out to be miscalculated by a matter of seconds. Hincapie, who could only watch helplessly as the pack closed in on the finish line, was so visibly distraught, vacillating between tears and anger, that you had to feel for the guy in the post-stage interview.
Lance on the other hand hummed and hawed his way through the post-stage questioning. The best excuse he could come up with was “blame Garmin.” That charge doesn’t stick, because Garmin could not have managed to close the gap if Astana had not done its earlier monster pull of the pack.
At least it was an interesting day in this so far undistinguished Tour. Maybe it will get even more interesting tomorrow. If Hincapie can use his emotions for a bit of afterburner on the final climb, he could be in yellow at the end of the day. If so, he’ll prove he really deserved the maillot jaune after all.