Friday, July 10, 2009

Tour de France: Rinaldo Nocentini in Yellow

ARCALIS (Andorra), 10 July 2009 - Rinaldo came, he climbed and he conquered. Rinaldo has the yellow jersey. Rinaldo Nocentini, 31, born in the Arezzo town of Montevarchi, but living in nearby Alberoro, leads the Tour de France. Ahead of Alberto Contador, ahead of Lance Armstrong, ahead of 173 other riders; ahead of everyone. First: Nocentini. You need to say it, read it, and repeat it: so that you believe it. Otherwise it might just seem like a very sweet dream. He is the first Italian to take the leader's yellow jersey since Alberto Elli in 2000. Elli took the lead in Tours and kept it for four days, when Lance Armstrong took over.

BREAKAWAY OF NINE - Nocentini broke away from the peloton 35 km into the race, with 189 more to go to the finish line. Another eight keen riders went with him: the Spaniards Martinez and Gutierrez, the Frenchmen Riblon (a teammate of Nocentini's), Pineau, Kern and Feillu (Brice, a year younger than Romain), the German Frohlinger (his name literally means "he who is serene" or "he who gives serenity") and the Belarusian Kuchynski. It was the longest stage, 224 km, with five mountains (which in order were: category four, three, one, three and off the scale); the final one was tax-free in the Principality of Andorra, 10.6 km long, with a 7.1 per cent gradient, and a climb of 751 metres in altitude. It ran from commercial areas up to the ski fields. The breakaway riders' lead was as large as 14'20", reduced to 7' when they started the final climb. After a series of short-lived breaks, it was Feillu who made the decisive move: still just 23, in his fist year as a professional, on his first Tour, it was his first mountain stage and his first win.

DAY OF GLORY - Behind him, Nocentini was no longer fighting for the stage, but for the overall lead. "I had started with the intention of having a day of glory, but when our lead had become larger than we could have imagined, I began to think that I could go all the way. My teammate Kern sacrificed himself for me. I owe this jersey to him too." Meanwhile the group including the top riders was travelling at a pace controlled by Astana's train. Until two kilometres from the finish line when Contador took off. Despite Armstrong, his teammate and rival, who was 18" ahead of him overall, and at that moment, a chance for the yellow jersey. Despite Evans and Sastre, Andy and Frank Schleck, all the tactics and strategies, his team's orders and the overall standings, and the psychological pressure. Alberto didn't get too far ahead: 21". But that was enough to move past Lance and spark a cycling world war.

FIRST TOUR - "Noce", as he is known, is a winner. In the youth age groups, as an amateur, and as a professional. His honours include a Giro di Toscana, a Giro dell’Appennino, the legendary Subida a Urkiola, the equally prestigious stage of the Paris-Nice race that finishes on Mont Faron. "The yellow jersey is the greatest prize a rider can get, even an Italian rider. And I still can't believe it. At the bottom of the last climb, when we were still 7' ahead, I told myself it was possible. Later, when they told me that Contador had thrown down the gauntlet, I shuddered. This is my first Tour: when I started I was in a small team that didn't get invited, now I've been in a French team for three years - the first two I got put on the Giro and the Vuelta, but this time I asked if I could ride here."

FEILLU - Brice Feillu is a 1.88 m, 67 kg beanpole. "I consider myslef to be a good 'rouleur' and a good 'grimpeur'," he explained at the start of the season, "and I hope to ride some good races." He earned his salary today. "I did something like this last year, as an amateur, on the Ballon d'Alsace," he said today, "and I hope there's more to come." In the meantime, while he was there, he also won the polka dot jersey for the best climber so far in the mountain stages. His brother Romain was not the first to hug him, as he arrived with the small group of sprinters almost half an hour later. But he was the most emotional: "As soon as they told me via radio that Brice had won, I burst into tears of joy. And I cried all the way to the finish line." A year ago it was Romain wearing the yellow jersey: just for a day, but the memory will last forever.

Photos (by Roberto Bettini): Nocentini savors his victory

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