Monday July 7th, 2008

They are so many Lycra-clad Mr. Bills, plunging earnestly forward, oblivious to the cruel fate that we, the audience, know in our bones awaits them.

Such is the fate, it seems, of all Tour de France breakaway riders. The escapees are allowed to range miles ahead of the main bunch, before the directors in their team cars perform the calculations, and radio ahead to instruct their draft horses to get their butts to the front and start turning the screws. In the end, after we have allowed ourselves to form an emotional attachment with them -- You know what? I think this guy's gonna make it! -- once we have allowed ourselves to hope, the escapees are devoured by the peloton whose riders (have you noticed this?) never even acknowledge their quarry once they make the catch.

Will Frischkorn of Garmin-Chipotle knew all this when he launched an audacious-bordering-on-silly attack three kilometers into today's Stage Three, a flat but wind-whipped and squall-prone 208 kilometer haul from St. Malo due south to Nantes.

Frischkorn and the three other riders who managed to jump across and hold his wheel were given plenty of line -- 15 minutes and change, 80 kilometers into the race -- by a main group that was certain it could reel them in at will.

The breakaway was comprised of Frischkorn, Paolo Longo Borghini of Barloworld and a pair of Frenchmen: Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), and Romain Feillu (Agritubel). Its chances of staying clear were not helped 60 km from the finish, when they had to weave their way through a group of protesters. TV cameras showed Tour director Christian Prudhomme bargaining with the aggrieved men, pleading with them to stay off the road. In the end the race was barely affected. Give Prudhomme a special jersey -- a referee's black and white stripes? -- for some nifty, impromptu arbitrating.

A funny thing happened around 50 klicks from the finish. The roads had turned narrow and sinuous. A rogue rainstorm drenched the peloton. The gap went under seven minutes ... and, for kilometer after critical kilometer, held relatively steady. With 40 km to go, the margin stood at 6:30. The teams of such overall favorites as Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) seemed intent on husbanding their strength for tomorrow's individual time trail. They were content to let someone else do the chasing.

With 25 kilometers left, there came a nasty pileup that the producers at Versus will happily add to their montage of what I call crash porn. (Nothing like a series of wipeouts to spice up a highlight reel!) In addition to jostling the overall standings -- general classification (GC) favorites Denis Menchov of Rabobank and Saunier Duval Scott's Riccardo Riccó were caught behind the crash, hemorrhaging significant amounts of time -- the accident staggered the chase. It soon became clear that this was that rarest of days in the Tour, when a long-shot breakaway would, in fact, succeed. But which of the four would snatch the win?

On its handy live race update, Velonews.com made the salient point that, as the bigger guys in the breakaway, Frischkorn and Borghini were shortchanged -- not getting as much of a draft behind the more sprite-like Frenchmen.

Yet Frischkorn looked -- it seems absurd to type it, since he'd been leading the race 200 km -- downright comfortable as the quartet sped under the 5k-banner. Riding in his first Tour de France, he'd been selected to support and run interference for his close friend Christian Vandevelde, Garmin's top contender for the race's general classification. But team director Jonathan Vaughters had given Frischkorn the green light to take a flyer, if the spirit moved him.

As Bonnie Ford details in her recent, superb profile, those two are more than simpatico. Vaughters, who shares a birthday with Frischkorn and is also his personal coach, was instrumental in keeping the former under-23 national champion in the sport. When Frischkorn was discouraged by injuries and the ubiquity of dopers in the peloton, Vaughters offered him a job and convinced him that he could succeed riding clean. Last March, Frischkorn turned heads by joining a group of four escapees who led Milan-San Remo, the famous one-day classic, for 140 miles before succumbing to the inevitable.

On Monday the inevitable never arrived. Dumoulin, whose 12 career victories made him the most dangerous man in the breakaway, catapulted forward just inside the 3k mark. Frischkorn, who later revealed that he'd been about to attack himself, laboriously walked him down, with Feillu in his slipstream. Dumoulin jumped again, and this time made it stick, barely fighting off Frischkorn at the line.

It was a great day for the French -- Feillu, who'd trailed Valverde by only 18 seconds -- rode into the yellow jersey. Dumoulin's 13th pro victory was the biggest of his career.

It was also a great day for Garmin-Chipotle. It wasn't just the face time that Frischkorn earned for his team's new sponsor. Every time a rider from one of the conspicuously clean teams nails down that kind of result, it's a very good thing for a sport that can use all the help it can get.

Poor Will was a cauldron of conflicted emotions as he submitted to a Versus interview moments after the finish: "It's amazing," he told Robbie Ventura. "It's great for the GC" -- Frischkorn now sits third overall, and was named today's "most combative" rider --"and great for [team] morale. Can't ask for much more."

At that point he winced, as if in physical pain, at the thought of what might have been. Who knows? Today's stage may be the only one in this Tour in which a breakaway stays away. To Frischkorn, who will now return to his supporting role, it will always be the one that got away.

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