Sprinters seize day at the close of Stage 1

Kirsipuu in photo finish

Armstrong third overall

Tour De France

July 05, 2004|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHARLEROI, Belgium - This year more than ever, the first part of the Tour de France belongs to the sprinters.

With the exception of Wednesday's team time trial, this week's finishes are built for the specialists who use their fast-twitch muscles and considerable nerve to go into handlebar-to-handlebar combat at the end of a flat stage. And there are fewer chances than in previous years for them to win toward the race's end.

Davis Phinney, the sprinter and first U.S. rider to win a Tour stage in 1986, calls the homestretch of a sprint a "vortex ... where you're going at maximum velocity, but you have to slow things down."

Multiple decisions have to be made as the finish nears. Which teammate or teammates will "lead out" the sprinter, allowing him to draft until he gauges the right moment to strike? When to make a move? When should the victor raise his arms? More than a few riders have misjudged the finish line and exulted a split second too soon.

Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu of the French Ag2R team had the right help and made the right calls yesterday to win a blustery Stage 1 in a photo finish with Australia's Robbie McEwen.

Defending champion Lance Armstrong rolled in with the main pack and is 10 seconds behind leader Fabian Cancellara and third overall. Armstrong wore an unaccustomed color courtesy of his previous day's second-place finish in the prologue - the green, or sprint, jersey, which he last donned in 1999. Fellow five-time winner Miguel Indurain visited Armstrong at the team van before the start.

The Tour traditionally front-loads sprint stages, giving the speedsters a chance to shine before the focus turns to the overall contenders and climbers in the mountains. Courses are configured so that even if breakways happen during the stage, the peloton - a French term for "rolled up in a ball" - winds up more or less together at the end.

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