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Hushovd bounces back, reclaims yellow jersey

7/4/2006

ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE, Luxembourg -- George Hincapie was Tour de France king for only a day, losing the overall lead and the yellow jersey that goes with it to an accident-prone Norwegian on a sweltering day.

But there were no regrets. After seven years of watching his former boss, Lance Armstrong, wear yellow day-in, day-out, the genial American now hungry for his own glory was thrilled to have had the chance to savor the famed shirt for himself, if only for 24 hours.

"A really special feeling, something I've always wanted to do," the veteran riding his 11th Tour said after slipping back from first to fourth in the overall standings following Monday's stage two, the second-longest of this first post-Armstrong Tour.

So far, Hincapie and Thor Hushovd have monopolized the bright "maillot jaune."

Hushovd, a sprinter, won it first, beating Hincapie by a split second in the short opening time trial Saturday.

Bitterly disappointed, Hincapie wrested it away the next day, becoming just the fourth U.S. rider to wear yellow in the 103-year history of cycling's premier event.

Hushovd got the shirt back Monday in the same way that Hincapie had taken it off him -- by sprinting for time bonuses along the 137-mile route from Obernai in eastern France on tarmac made hot by the blazing sun.

Hushovd picked up four seconds that way, more than erasing Hincapie's slim two-second lead, and then garnered eight more bonus seconds by placing third in the jostling sprint at the finish that was won by Australian Robbie McEwen, still one of the fastest on the Tour at age 34.

"I haven't slowed down yet," said McEwen, who has nine stage wins in nine Tours and is gunning for more and the green jersey that is awarded to the three-week race's best sprinter -- a title he won in 2002 and 2004.

But Hushovd won that jersey last year and isn't going to give it up without a fight. He has more than proved his mettle in the past 24 hours, pushing on despite being injured in a freak accident in another sprint finish Sunday.

Hushovd sliced open his right arm, spraying blood all over his yellow jersey, by brushing against an outstretched and outsized green cardboard hand that a fan was holding out over the safety barriers. He required stitches, and bruising made moving his arm difficult Monday. Pain medication also gave him a stomach ache, he said.

But in the final sprint, "you forget the pain," he said.

He and McEwen bumped each other -- the Australian said Hushovd's front wheel brushed his left shoe -- as they dashed for the line. Hushovd's own left shoe also popped out of its pedal, forcing him to ride with one leg for the final few yards and enabling world champion Tom Boonen -- another green jersey contender -- to steal second place.

For sprinters, such drama in the dangerous final stretch is par for the course, although Hushovd said he would like to see double rows of safety barriers to keep fans at arm's length, "so we can't touch the cameras or whatever they can put out in front of us."

McEwen said he and Hushovd talked about their brush-up afterward and "we're still friends."

"It wasn't his fault," Hushovd said. "I've got the yellow jersey. I can't complain."

Hincapie wasn't complaining, either. Hushovd and McEwen are pure sprinters, so he can afford to let them rule the relatively flat and fast first week that swings Tuesday into Belgium and the Netherlands before doubling back into France on Wednesday.

If Hincapie is really going to make his mark -- and follow in the footsteps of Armstrong, whom he served loyally as a teammate on each of his record seven Tour wins -- then he'll need to excel on the high climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps where sprinters flounder, and in two long time trials -- one on Saturday, the other on the last day before the race finishes in Paris on July 23.

"The mountains are actually quite hard. I've done 'em and they're very difficult. I don't know. I trained well on them, and I hope they suit me," said Hincapie, who showed last year that he can climb by winning a brutal stage in the Pyrenees.

The New York native who lives in Greenville, S.C, and who met his French wife, Melanie, on the Tour, has also prepared for the time trials by training in a wind tunnel, looking for any tiny adjustment to reduce drag and, as a consequence, help speed.

"I do a lot more training for time trials and big mountains. Before I didn't work so much on that, and now it's pretty much all I do," he said. "We have new bikes, and lighter bikes and stiffer bikes, and faster wheels and faster positions."

But all those challenges are still to come. Even if he doesn't win the Tour, Hincapie will always have his hot Monday in yellow to cherish.

"To have it for a day is a big accomplishment for me," he said. "I'm happy. I never had it before."