Lance Armstrong: Don't Blame Me, George! (UPDATED)

The Tour de France got a lot more interesting today, one day ahead of schedule.

We already knew that tomorrow's stage into the Swiss Alps would turn up the fireworks in what has been a "slightly boring" race (according to Armstrong himself).

The surprise today was that Lance's old teammate George Hincapie, who selflessly helped Armstrong win his previous seven Tour championships, missed out on taking over the Tour's legendary yellow jersey by five seconds, and then bitterly blamed Lance's team for it.

Explaining this spat between good friends requires a pretty technical understanding of the Tour's workings, but we'll try to keep this simple...

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As the stage began today, Hincapie, who now rides for the American team Columbia/HTC, was a little more than 5 minutes down on "general classification." (Specifically, he was in 28th place at 5:25 down.)

What that means is that over the first two weeks of the race, Hincapie had fallen that amount of time behind the current leader of the Tour and wearer of the yellow jersey, an Italian rider named Rinaldo Nocentini.

Nocentini has worn the jersey for a week after he nabbed the Tour lead in a long breakaway in the principality of Andorra. Few expect him to hold onto that lead after the race enters the Alps tomorrow, because it will be difficult for him to keep up with the real strongmen in the race, Lance Armstrong (8 seconds behind Nocentini) and his young Astana teammate, Alberto Contador (6 seconds behind).

Early on today's stage, however, Hincapie managed to get himself into a large breakaway of thirteen riders. All of the other men in the breakaway happened to be trailing Nocentini even more than Hincapie.

Simple math, then, dictated that if the breakaway group finished the stage more than 5 minutes and 25 seconds ahead of the group containing Nocentini, then Hincapie would be the new leader of the Tour. (One of the quirks of the race is that everyone in a group gets the same time at the finish, even if it takes several seconds for a group to cross the line.)

For much of today's stage, the breakaway was more than six minutes ahead of the "peloton" -- the word for the main group of riders, which included Nocentini. That made Hincapie the "virtual yellow jersey," meaning that if the race were stopped at that point, he'd be the new leader.

But as the end of a stage nears, the peloton has a tendency to pick up its pace and finish fast. The only question then, was whether the peloton would speed up enough to close the gap to less than the 5:25 difference Hincapie needed to end up with the yellow jersey.

(And a note here: Hincapie would likely only wear the yellow jersey for a single day, because he's likely to lose a lot of time tomorrow in the big mountains. But the prestige of wearing yellow, even for a single day, is so huge with these athletes, Hincapie desperately wanted it.)

As Hincapie urged the other men in the breakaway to power their way to the finish, he would naturally be monitoring -- through his teammates and their radios -- how fast the peloton was pursuing, and which team would be leading that effort.

The peloton is like an amoeba, an undulating creature made up of cyclists who stick together to benefit from their collective slipstreaming. Tired riders, and riders saving their energy for another day, will spend all day tucked into the large group and not do any work at the front to cut through the wind and keep the group's speed up.

It usually falls to one team or another to do that hard work, to go to the front and pick up the pace, elongating the amoeba of riders and forcing it to move faster.

Since it was Nocentini, wearing the yellow jersey, who had the most to lose today if Hincapie's plan succeeded, one would expect that Nocentini's team Ag2R, a somewhat weak French squad, would lead the peloton and try to eat into the more than six minute lead of the breakaway.

But instead, it was Lance Armstrong's team, Astana, that was doing that work for quite a long time today.

Astana then gave way to Ag2R, which attempted to raise the speed of the peloton, but failed to eat into the breakaway's lead -- Hincapie's lead ballooned to about 6:40 with only about 10 kilometers to go.

At that point, a totally unexpected thing happened. An American team, Garmin/Chipotle Garmin/Slipstream (see comments), came to the front and started to pound out a fast rhythm. The peloton was pulled along at a much faster pace, and the gap started to come down.

It didn't seem to make a lot of sense -- why would Garmin want to keep Columbia rider Hincapie out of the Tour lead? Paul Sherwen, the excellent British commentator who rode in seven Tours himself, reasoned that Garmin was trying ruin Hincapie's bid simply as part of the rivalry between the two American teams. (That rivalry has nothing to do with Armstrong, who this year rides for a team sponsored by the Kazakh government, as we've noted before.)

At the end, the Russian national champion, Serguei Ivanov, powered away from the breakaway for a brilliant solo win, sixteen seconds ahead of Hincapie and the others. After Hincapie finished, he could only wait and see if the peloton finished more than 5:25 back to give him yellow.

They finished 5:20 later. Nocentini keeps yellow, and Hincapie is in second place, five seconds behind him. Hincapie's attempt for yellow had been ruined.

A few minutes later, Versus Channel interviewer Frankie Andreu caught up with Hincapie, who was clearly very bitter.

He blamed Astana -- the team of his old friend, Lance Armstrong -- for ruining his day of glory.

Armstrong, naturally, turned to his Twitter account to defend himself:

"Sounds like there's quite a bit of confusion over this one... Noone [sic], and I mean noone, wanted George in yellow more than me."

"Our team rode a moderate tempo to put him in the jersey by at least 2 mins. Ag2r said they would not defend then they started to ride."

"Until 10km to go he was solidly in yellow until GARMIN put on the gas and made sure it didn't happen."

"I reiterate. @ghincapie deserves to be yellow tonight."

Alas, he isn't. But here's hoping that Hincapie is so worked up about it, he sticks with Armstrong and Contador all day tomorrow, so that when Nocentini fades, Hincapie will get yellow anyway. (He's currently one second ahead of Contador and three ahead of Lance.)

At the least, Nocentini and Hincapie will add layers to what should already be a spectacular day of attacks tomorrow from the likes of Australia's Cadel Evans and Luxemburger Andy Schleck, who can't afford to wait any longer to go after Contador and Armstrong.

Attacks! Rivalries! Bitter feelings between old friends!

Ah, now this is starting to look like a Tour de France.

(PS: the mainstream press will boil all this down to: "Armstrong slips from third to fourth." Which means nothing. The dailies rarely bother to tell Americans what's really going on.)

SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: A few points to add after hearing interviews with the principals on this morning's Versus broadcast.

Several of our commenters (see below) pointed out that while Astana was leading the peloton yesterday, the gap to Hincapie's breakaway increased to over eight minutes. Those commenters pointed to that fact as evidence that Armstrong didn't intend to ruin Hincapie's attempt to get into the yellow jersey.

As we pointed out in the original post, however, the peloton tends to speed up as the finish line nears, regardless of which team is on the front. Hincapie's beef seemed to be that Astana didn't allow the gap to go even higher, say nine or ten minutes, knowing that the gap would fall quickly at the end.

Versus commentator Phil Liggett said as much this morning, questioning why Astana kept the breakaway on such a "short leash."

Hincapie himself has had as much time to review the race tapes as anyone, and this morning he appeared not to have changed his mind. He's still angry.

Astana team director Johan Bruyneel told Versus that his team was actually planning to let the gap go to ten minutes, but that it was Nocentini's team, Ag2R, that took over and kept the gap from getting that large.

Well, whatever. For those commenters who felt we at the Voice were taking sides, if you look back at the original post, you'll see that we made no judgment on Astana's tactics, only reported Hincapie's disappointment.

And as for the commenter who felt it was "rubbish" when we said Hincapie would likely lose time today, please note that we actually, at the end, hoped for the opposite. We'd love to see George get yellow today, but Hincapie knows as well as anyone that the effort it takes to do a long breakaway like the one he was in yesterday will make it very difficult for him to keep up today when the attacks start coming on the Verbier climb.

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