Blazin' Saddles

Eight seconds

Blazin' Saddles

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It may appear a teensy-weensy margin, but at this stage of the race
every little helps for Alberto Contador. Besides, doesn't the eight seconds
Bertie seized back from rival Andy Schleck at Mur-de-Bretagne have a nice
symbolic ring to it?

Eight seconds, of course, was slender amount of time that saw Greg
Lemond beat Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour. Eight seconds was also the
advantage held by Contador over Schleck the day after the infamous
"Chain-gate" affair.

But what do those eight seconds mean today? On the surface of things,
very little; Contador is still 1:42 down on leader Thor Hushovd and 1:30 behind
Schleck. And yet it was an eight seconds which Schleck Junior did not need to
lose - and eight seconds which he should not have lost.

After all, Schleck's brother Frank managed to finish with the same time
as the Spaniard - and isn't Andy meant to be the stronger of the two?

What's more, the time Contador has lost to his rivals so far in this
year's race has been wholly unavoidable: the crash which held him up on stage
one was simply one of those beguiling caprices of cycling, while Saxo Bank were
never earmarked as a team which would boss the TTT.

Schleck's eight-second loss - regardless of how minor it may seem -
represents the first time on this year's Tour that one of the main contenders
has lost time to his rivals purely on individual cycling merit.

There will be longer, harder, steeper climbs over the next 17 days of
racing - and Contador's second place behind Cadel Evans was a timely reminder
that, despite his sketchy start, the reigning champion is far from out of the

The same verdict that Mark Cavendish gave regarding his own prospects on
the Tour can be applied to those of Contador: it would take a very uneducated
person to write him off now.

The Australian press apparently lambasted the Spaniard for clenching his
fist as he crossed the line - but surely even journalists of an Antipodean ilk
can see that Contador's celebration wasn't in any way to belittle Evans; it was
simply the gesture of a man who thought he had won the stage, and of a man who
was signalling not a change in his fortunes but a return to normality.

Evans was a worthy winner but the fact remains that Contador, on his
day, does not lose time to his rivals - even when his rivals beat him to the
stage victory.

Andy Schleck may have shrugged off his meagre losses in that
Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo manner of his, but if history repeats itself and, like
in 1989, the gap separating both he and Contador (or even Evans, for that
matter) on the podium in Paris is eight seconds or less, then the joke will be
on him.

Ask Mark Cavendish, who last year fatefully pulled up in one bunch
sprint only to see Alessandro Petacchi pip him to the green jersey in Paris by
11 meagre points.

One rule for Cav, another for the rest?

If the Manxman was justifiably nonplussed with the decision by race
commissaires to strip both him and Hushovd of their points from the
intermediate sprint in stage three on Monday, then he would have been even
angrier when looking at slow motion pictures from the finish.

A frozen TV image doing the rounds - and re-tweeted by Mark Renshaw -
shows Frenchman Sebastien Hinault clearly leaning with his head into the
eventual stage winner Tyler Farrar.

Hinault's fourth place and green jersey points were not taken from him -
in fact, the French race commissaires did not even consider looking at the
replays, even though the still suggests the AG2R rider's butt was worse looking
than the innocuous sun-tan rub of Cav.

Then on Tuesday's stage four, when Romain "Kamikaze" Feillu
required a bike change in the closing moments, the Frenchman was seen clearly
being paced back to the bunch by his Vacansoleil team car.

No word on whether or not Feillu will be fined for that obvious flouting
of race rules - but needless to say, had that been a certain sprinter from the Isle
of Man, the punishment would have been a whole lot heftier.

Stage 5 prediction:

Well, a flat run-in to Cap Frehel means the easy money will be on
Cavendish, but given his luck so far on this year's race, perhaps it would be
wiser to predict something more complicated, say: echelons in the peloton
forming due to the wind coming in off the coast, with Cav being one of the
unfortunate riders missing out. In his absence, Farrar will battle it out with
Petacchi (remember him?) with both Bozic and Rojas coming close. In short, No.2
for Tyler.

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