12 July 2007
Most of the early racing in the 2007 Tour de France has favoured the sprinters. One of the most visible of the fast men, so far, has been South African Robert Hunter, leader of Team Barloworld, the first SA-sponsored team to contest cycling’s most famous race.
On Wednesday’s fourth stage, covering 193 kilometres from Villers-Cotterets to Joigny, Hunter came within a whisper of becoming the first South African to win a stage on the Tour. Victory went to Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole, the winner of the green jersey in 2005, which goes to the leader of the points competition, with Hunter just behind the Norwegian.
It was Hushovd’s fifth victory on the Tour and lifted him up to second in the overall standings, thanks to time bonuses he picked up en route to the finish. Fabian Cancellara, who has worn the yellow jersey since winning the prologue with a scintillating ride, remained in the lead after finishing safely within the main peleton.
Happy, but frustrated
Hunter could have viewed his second place on the fourth stage in either of two ways: he could have been disappointed, or he could have celebrated his excellent finish. He chose the latter, although he admitted it was frustrating to come so close to a win without quite managing it.
Hunter wrote on his website: “I can’t complain, I know, ’cause in the big picture things are going well for me and the team so far, but winning is always so much better.”
Describing the finish, he said: “In the final it was really crazy and, once again, there was no real team that strung it all out, so there were riders all over the place. At two kilometres to go, I thought I had a great place, and next thing I know there are guys coming all around me.
‘Two metres short’
“Under the last kilometre, I was trying to get out and eventually found a gap on the right of the road, but then there were guys coming back that had just pulled. I saw Julien Dean pulling and launching Thor and when I got going he already had three metres on me. I came as hard as I could, but was about two metres short of road to come past.
“The shout you all saw, I guess, was pure frustration and being so close is a pain in the butt.
“I’m getting closer on the green, and I’m now in fourth, but that also won’t be an easy task. I’ll give it my best and we’re just gonna have to wait and see how it all goes.”
The South African star has been consistently strong throughout the early running, finishing amongst the frontrunners time after time.
On the third stage, the longest of the race at 236.5 kilometres, Hunter was to the fore, finishing fifth as Cancellara took his second victory.
Hunter was fourth on the second stage, with Belgian team Quickstep-Innergetic scoring a one-two on home soil, Gert Steegmans taking victory ahead of Tom Boonen.
Team Barloworld’s leader led out the sprint on the second stage but, as he admitted afterwards, he went far too early for the finish line.
‘Take the gap”
Explaining his decision to go for it, Hunter wrote: “Okay, okay, I know it was way too long, but at that moment, when the front guys (Milram) sat up and I saw a huge gap open up in front of me at 65km/h, I made the decision to take the gap and go for it. My idea was, if I got 10 metres, it would have been game over for everybody else.
“In the end, it never worked out as Vaitikus came after me straight away, but if you don’t try you will never know.”
Despite being in with a shout at victory without quite making it yet, Hunter reckoned he is happy and confident with his form. He said he believes he is capable of scoring a win.
A team of climbers
It won’t come easily, however; Hunter has pointed out that the Barloworld team is geared to perform in the mountains, with most of its members being climbers.
Nonetheless, he said he is happy with the job his team is doing to assist him.
“I really can’t ask for more,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s for me to sprint and get in the right position, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”