Rain, Norwegian cyclist reign at Tour's Modesto stop

Racers battled winds, rain on way from San Jose

February 18, 2009 

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At exactly 3:24 p.m., the clouds parted in downtown Modesto.

Umbrellas folded, and for the first time in about an hour it was possible to see how many people had gathered on and around I Street to watch the finish of the Tour of California’s Stage 3.

The number was perhaps half of the 25,000 predicted by local organizers, who all along had tagged the caveat “weather permitting” on their hopes. Permission not granted.

It meant that the crowds lining 11th Street, expected to be three-and four-deep as the riders passed through to start their second lap of downtown, were single file along the barrier until mid-block, where lunchers dining al fresco at Tresetti’s World Caffe had an unblocked view of the route.

The records will show that Thor Hushovd sprinted to the line ahead of Oscar Freire and Mark Renshaw, and since the entire finishing pack crossed the line in a continuous stream within 30 seconds, all riders were given the same finish time.

But for the third consecutive day, the weather dominated the race, and not even the people whose job it is to coordinate the clock and cold fronts came close to getting it right.

"It's been cold and wet, and everybody's been suffering through it," said American Bradley White of Team Ouch, one of Tuesday’s strong climbers. "Everybody's been taking the corners real easy. There are obstacles in the roads that force you to be real careful. After three days of this we’ve learned how to dress for the cold and the wet."

On Friday, race organizers moved up Tuesday’s race start in San Jose by 10 minutes, and also lopped off one of two complete laps of downtown Modesto. They cited safety issues with a wet race surface, but the only real concern was making sure the race ended before 4 p.m., when Versus Network was scheduled to end its daily coverage.

Even with those moves, the riders missed the television target by 23 minutes, as Versus switched to hockey precisely at 4 p.m.

Yes, the yellow jersey will be worn by Levi Leipheimer as the tour continues today with a race from Merced to Clovis, but that particular garment is owned by Mother Nature.

But, as predicted, the lay of the course resulted in an exciting mass parade of riders in and around Modesto, as all the riders crossed the finish line at I and 11th streets less than half a minute behind the stage winner.

And tactically, the race went as planned. With the final 55 miles of the 102-mile course on flat valley land, it was set up to be a day for the sprinters.

Leipheimer almost became a casualty very early, touching wheels with teammate Lance Armstrong 40 minutes into the race and crashing. Leipheimer climbed right back on and quickly rejoined the peloton.

A few miles later, Omer Kem misjudged a turn on the steep descent into Livermore and went over the edge of the road. He was taken away by ambulance, reportedly with a broken leg.

With the climbs complete, it became a day for sprinters, and the riders bold enough to charge over Patterson Pass had no choice but to be absorbed by the pack inside the 2.8-mile Modesto loop, which was exciting as anybody could have wanted.

Dutchman Bauke Mollema, American Jeff Louder and White led the climb and survived the sprint long enough to reach the 12th and I streets first with a lap to go, but even then had little chance of winning.

Midway through the final lap, they were overtaken by the pack, and Hushovd emerged with a 10-yard lead at the head of I Street — a cushion large enough to hold through the end.

But had the race gone one more 2.8-mile lap, as planned, would Hushovd have prevailed? The question was moot, and Hushovd noncommittal.

"It was enough of a course that I think we only needed to cross the finish line once again after we passed it the first time," Hushovd said. "I think it gave the people enough of a look at us."

The race continues with Stage 4 on Wednesday, from Merced to Clovis.

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