Map, ASO (c).
Champagne anyone? It's anyone's guess who will be sipping the bubbly at the end of this 153.5 km stage from Cambrai to Reims, the center of champagne production in France.
It will be a fairly flat day for the riders, with an opportunity for the sprinters to battle it out at the end and big names to make up for time they lost on the cobblestones.
Among the sprinters, that could mean a push ahead for Mark Cavendish of HTC Columbia, and possibly Tom Boonen of QuickStep and Tyler Farrar of Garmin Transitions--though with small bone broken in Farrar's hand from stage two's carnage, that might be a distant hope. Don't discount Thor Hushovd who won yesterday's stage, as well as Alessandro Petacchi from Lampre, and Robbie McEwen of Katusha, who twittered today, "Felt bad on the bike after ydays crash but managed to get over cobbles in a reasonable grp. Had to dodge a few fallen riders." By the way, anyone who says that Lance Armstrong is the oldest guy in the peleton, doesn't know that Austrialian McEwen is older by a few months.
A pic of Cav from his website
Farrar also is a wildcard, depending mostly on his position near the finish because his team rarely is able to battle it out with the steaming freight train of the white jerseys of Columbia.
Let's also not forget that there are some competitors who will be looking to score time in today's stage, like, Lance Armstrong, who is likely still stinging from yesterday's bad luck flat that caused him to slip to 18th position in the general classification. He'll be battling it out with his so-called nemesis, Alberto Contador, if not openly, at least behind the scenes.
And Andy Schleck who has now lost his helping hand in the form of his brother Frank Schleck who is out of the race because of a broken collarbone, will be looking to stay among the top 10 finishers. He can't afford to lose too much time in the flats, because once he reaches the mountains, he won't have Frank there for tactical and real help. He can continue to find help from Fabian Cancellara, but once those HTC Columbia boys start pushing the pace--if they do--Team Saxo Bank will have to put up quite an effort to stay in there.
I think they can do it, but it's going to be a real race to the finish today--no understatement.
HTC Columbia freight train working for Cav' at Vuelta a Catalunya, team photo (c)
Past stages on this terrain has allowed riders to escape in a breakaway and keep away to the end, resulting in surprise finishes as in 1973 in a stage from Roubaix to Reims in which Luis Ocana took to the front breakaway and the peleton behind him split into six groups, with some riders losing as much as seven minutes.
But with the anger and determination of some riders who lost time yesterday, somehow I think that will not be the case today.
Incidentally, with Frank Schleck out of the race now, it's a real toss up if Andy will make it to the podium in Paris this year. He's a terrific rider, but his slight form and now lack of support in the mountains may make him fresh meat for the wolves.