The battle for temporary command of the yellow and green jerseys on the Tour de France provided some thrilling racing, and score-settling, on the 14th stage from Colmar to Besancon on Saturday.
Russian Sergei Ivanov of Katusha came over the finish line solo after decisively attacking his group of 11 breakaway companions 11km from home.
It was only 5 minutes, 36 seconds later, when Italy’s Rinaldo Nocentini, racing for AG2R, crossed with all the race favorites, that he was confirmed as still being in possession of the race leaders’ yellow jersey.
With three stages in the mountains spread over the next four days, the battle for overall victory between Lance Armstrong’s Astana team and their rivals was postponed as the teams so far devoid of stage success went on the hunt.
However, on a day marked tragically by the death of a woman spectator hit by a police motorcycle, there was no lack of drama with scores, apparently, being settled.
Armstrong and his Astana team gave the thumbs up to an early 12-man breakaway which, for most of the day, had his former teammate Hincapie, now racing for Columbia, in the virtual yellow jersey.
Hincapie, the only rider at Armstrong’s side in all seven of his Tour triumphs, came over the finish line 16 seconds behind Ivanov, but in the end his efforts were all for nothing.
Thanks to some chasing help from the Garmin team, AG2R were able to keep Nocentini in the yellow jersey as they raced over the finish line 5 minutes, 36 seconds behind Ivanov.
“We spoke with the Garmin team and asked them to help us in the chase,” Nocentini said. “They put riders at the front in the final 10km, 15km and that gave us a bit of freshness.”
The end result was that Garmin and Columbia won nothing, and Nocentini kept the jersey by five seconds.
Columbia team manager Rolf Aldag admitted they had been hoping to have Hincapie and top sprinter Mark Cavendish in the yellow and green jerseys respectively, but he admitted being mystified at Garmin’s tactics.
“We were hoping for green and yellow, and we ended up with nothing, but that’s sport,” Aldag said. “It was other teams who came to the front with 10km to go to [help AG2R] chase, specifically Garmin, but that’s bike racing, we have to live with it.”
To add to their woes, Columbia, thanks to Cavendish, were handed a reprimand by race officials.
Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd said he narrowly avoided disaster when Cavendish tried to run him into the barriers. The winner of four stages so far, Cavendish was later disqualified from the stage for the infringement.
The decision meant Hushovd reinforced his lead in the points competition.
“I could pass him and when he saw me coming he tried to push me into the barriers, and that’s not fair game,” Hushovd said.
With Nocentini expected to lose the jersey on the first day of three in the Alps, it left Ivanov as arguably the day’s only winner.
“I knew there were guys behind me pushing hard who also wanted to win the stage, that is why I gave all my energy to push to the line,” the Russian said. “I only looked back when I was right on the finish, as I didn’t want to lose even half a second. I concentrated on pushing to the line, it felt like it was pulling me on, which is why I barely looked back.”