Sprinters Risk Life, Limb for Green Glory
SAINT-BRIEUC, France (AP) _ Move over, Miguel Indurain. When it’s time for those bone-chilling sprint finishes, make room for Mario Cippolini and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov.
For any cycling ace who covets a yellow jersey into Paris as a Tour de France winner, there’s also a green jersey.
Starting Sunday, expect the big men of sprinting to merge in one colorful blur at breakneck speeds, trying to finish as high as possible in each individual stage, even if the stage victory is already claimed.
Points are at stake, and with it, the green jersey.
``I want to enter Paris wearing green,″ said Italy’s Cippolini, one of the dominating forces when it comes to an explosive finish. In his way stands Abdoujaparov, of Uzbekistan, who won last year’s three of the last four green jerseys.
Each stage has up to 35 points going to the winner, gently decreasing to 1 for the 25th finisher. The system does not punish a time lag like the overall standing does, and even awards fewer points for mountain stages and time trials, where the overall winner is decided.
But when when elbows are flying and sideway charges are made at up to 45 mph, mathematics don’t immediately come to mind.
``In a sprint finish, I’m never scared. A sprinter who is scared might as well go fishing,″ said Belgian champion Wilfried Nelissen.
Tough words from a professional who was involved in one of the most horrific crashes in Tour history last year.
Going for a win against France’s Laurent Jalabert in the first stage at Armentieres last year, Nelissen slammed at full speed into a reckless policeman who jumped into his line trying to take a picture.
A bad concussion and internal bleeding cost him the rest of the season.
Jalabert was even worse. Unable to avoid Nelissen, he hit the pavement, losing several teeth and needing reconstructive surgery on his face.
``If it is going to finish with a sprint Sunday, it’ll be tough not to think of Armentieres,″ he said. ``It is going to be the most dangerous sprint of the season. Everyone will be there.″
But the challengers for the yellow jersey have increasingly kept a low profile.
It used to be that champions were going for the double, excelling in all disciplines. Five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx won three green jerseys during his imperial reign from 1969 to 1974. France’s Bernard Hinault was the last one to double, in 1979.
With danger all about, many stay back in the pack. Jalabert might be an exception this year. He started out as a sprinter but has become an all-rounder with a chance to take points in the mountains and time-trial stages, too. It puts him among the top favorites for the green jersey.
What sprinters hate most are deviations from a line of sprinting, which can leave any competitor bruised and broken. Grudges can last years.
Adriano Baffi, a teammate no less, spoiled Cippolini’s season last year when he ran him into the ground during the Spanish Vuelta.
``They even feared for my life,″ Cippolini said, ``and I long feared I would ever be able to sprint again.″ Daily migraines only eased when he resumed training last fall.
This season, Baffi is no longer his teammate. ``I haven’t spoken to him since. There is nothing to say,″ Cippolini said.
Cippolini already has clinched more than a dozen sprint wins this season. In Italy’s Giro, the world’s second multistage event, he dominated one stage to the extent that he stood upright some 25 yards before the line and ostentatiously looked around for any opposition.
``The public loves it. But I didn’t want to make anyone look ridiculous,″ he said, knowing full well that such things could turn against him.
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