On paper, Stage 4 wasn’t supposed to be all that hard. A mere 152km, with only one ‘mountain’ sprint, and 5 laps of a flat circuit at the end featuring a short cobbled section.
We had time to gain back today for Greg, and fortunately, the first sprints came at 19.5km and 25km into the race which meant that if we could keep it together, we could set Greg up to take some bonus seconds and get the yellow jersey back.
When the flag dropped after the neutral, Martin Kohler and I were immediately at the front riding a very fast steady tempo. One or two guys tried to attack to get into a breakaway but we quickly reeled them in. After about the third attack I think the peloton got the memo, that no one was going to get away just yet, and that was the last of the attacks that we saw. The rest of the team worked their way up to the front, with Ballan, Frank and Murphy all getting their time at the front. Kristoff was on my wheel, with Greg behind him. The pack was very nervous behind us, I could feel it. Teams would creep up beside the back of our BMC train, trying to slot themselves into the best seat in the house, which was right behind Greg. As we neared the 1st sprint, Skil Shimano started to show themselves a bit more, and were almost riding neck and neck with us. No matter. At 1km to the sprint, Kohler ramped up the pace again and the road dipped slightly downhill. Perfect, I thought. On a flat road, no one can pass me, on a downhill, don’t even try. With Kristoff set to launch Greg after my pull, it was soon my turn at the front. My body bent over the bike, legs firing up and down like pistons I went like a mad man. I love going fast, and I love going fast at the front of a bike race, so these kind of things I look forward to. Kristoff came off my wheel at 300m to go, with Greg behind him and then some Skil-Shimano riders attempting to pass on the right. From my view, I couldn’t quite see the sprint but I knew Greg was up there, and the yellow jersey was not. We got 1 second back.
Vacansoleil (the team with the yellow jersey) worked their way to the front to try and capture the next sprint. I was feeling my effort but had been expecting to have to fight back to the front and get ready for sprint number 2. This time Vacansoleil was leading it out and I lined up right next to them, half in the wind, half in the draft with my boys sitting in behind me. As we wound up I maintained position, just keeping my guys out of trouble. With 700m to go there was a sharp left turn and the pack began to swarm leading up to it. I gave my final push to keep the guys in position and locked both Greg and Kristoff into the wheel of Vacansoleil’s train and pulled off. Greg made the jump off of Kristoff’s wheel and got another second over the yellow jersey. Boom. We were in yellow.
The race was on now. With no team controlling anymore, guys were eager to get in breakaways. Our team was quite worked after holding everything together for the two sprints and I sat at the back just trying to catch my breath as we trucked along the belgian countryside. The third sprint was at 56km or so and I was just praying a break would go before that so we wouldn’t have to sprint again. Vacansoleil had other things in mind however and managed to keep everything together. Again, we forced our way to the front, but the team was just a little bit too gassed. Greg was in a good position, he just couldn’t come by the yellow jersey. Down one second.
Now Greg was tied, again, for the jersey. It took 10-20 more km for the breakaway to form and it finally did much to my happiness as I couldn’t wait to take a ‘nature break’ and refuel. The rest of the stage went by pretty quickly, Vacansoleil kept the break in check since they held the jersey (technically Greg was the virtual yellow jersey, but we didn’t need to remind them of that). As a unit, we lined up behind the Vacansoleil train. The last half of the race was to be contested on 4 laps of a 17km circuit which featured a nice 1.5km cobbled section. As per usual, before the cobble section on each lap the pack was quite nervous with everyone wanting to be at the front. We all stayed out of trouble however, and soon enough the finish was coming up. The last 5km was very technical and my job was to take care of Kristoff and give him a lead out in the sprint. I hung back a bit until around 2km to go when I made a big effort to get up to Kristoff and take him up to about 8th wheel. The last 500m were slightly uphill making for a hard sprint. As Leopard Trek ran out of guys early on the front I saw my chance and gunned it with 300m to go. I could only hope Kristoff was on my wheel (it is hard to hear or see anything at 65km/h), and was relieved when he came whipping by me. A couple wheels ahead Robbie McEwen was giving a good kick but Kristoff was approaching fast. The finish line came quicker however and we had to settle for second, with McEwen taking top honors. Greg was 8th and back in yellow.
Another day on the front awaited us.