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Rain and Revenge at l'Etoile des Bessèges

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story by gavia Former French National Champion Thomas Voeckler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom won the overall at l'Etoile des Bessèges, which ended on Sunday. Voeckler's team rode a defensive race behind a nine-rider break that reached the finish just over a minute ahead of the main field. Jean-Eudes Demaret of Cofidis won the sprint for the stage win. It all sounds like a rather dull affair: French team wins French race. Not so fast.

The story begins with a deluge during the third stage. The 133 kilometer stage between Branoux-les-Taillades and La Grand'Combe included three climbs and should have proved decisive for the general classification. Because of the weather, the organizers decided to shorten the race, removing approximately 60 kilometers from the original course. They also managed to send the riders the wrong direction, requiring the entire peloton to stop, turn around, and continue back the way they'd come. The commissaires re-established the early break, which included approximately twelve riders. Pelted by a rainstorm of biblical proportions, the break soon rejoined the main field. Bike racers and sheep, is there really a difference? The rain-soaked field then came to the only obstacle for the day, the Col de la Baraque.

Not content with this state affairs, Yuri Trofimov of Bbox Bouygues Telecom attacked on the lower slopes of the Col. Not so much like sheep after all. The 25 year old Russian, who finished third at the French season opener GP Ouverture Marseillaise, clearly did his winter homework and is showing some nice early season form. Only the Slovene Jure Kocjan of CarmioOro A-Style could follow the move. The two survived to reach the finish together, and Kocjan won the sprint for the stage win. Kocjan also took over the coral-colored leader's jersey. Smiles all around for Kocjan. For Trofimov, not so much.

For it turned out that Trofimov and Kocjan had made a deal on the road. Trofimov did the work of keeping the break clear. In return, Kocjan would not contest the sprint. Apparently, Kocjan either forgot or never intended to keep his end of the agreement. Maybe he was simply distracted by his team kit. The rest of us certainly are. In any case, this betrayal made Trofimov and his team-mates at Bbox Bouygues Telecom very angry indeed.

The following day, the Bbox boys set out to show their displeasure with the double-crossing Kocjan. Vengeance is ours, they declared, and from the start of the 151 kilometer stage, the team rode hard at the front. Before long, they had established a break containing three Bbox Bouygues riders: the much-wronged Yuri Trofimov, Thomas Voeckler, and Pierrick Fédrigo. Sandy Casar and Matthieu Ladagnous of Française des Jeux, Stéphane Goubert of AG2R La Mondiale, and Jimmy Casper of Besson Chaussures-Sojasun, who won the first two stages of l'Etoile, also made the move. Race leader Jure Kocjan managed to make the split, but had no team-mates for support. Kocjan faced a long day out with three angry Bbox-Bouygues, who continued to force the pace in the break.

With 20 kilometers left to ride, Thomas Voeckler attacked and succeeded in escaping the break. Björn Leukemans of Vacansoleil joined him. Working together, the two quickly built up a solid gap over the chase group containing the race leader Kocjan. With no team-mates to come to his aid, Kocjan had little chance of defending his jersey against the former French National Champion Voeckler and Leukemans. Leukemans and Voeckler rode hard together, and at the finish, Voeckler did not contest the sprint. See Jure, this is how this breakaway thing is done. Leukemans took the stage win, Voeckler, the race lead. Memo to Kocjan: Karma's a bitch.

During Sunday's final stage, Bbox Bouygues proved happy to ride a defensive race and protect Voeckler's race lead. Nine riders took advantage of the circumstances and rode off in pursuit of the stage win. Jean-Eudes Demaret of Cofidis held the highest placing in the general classification, sitting 7 minutes behind Voeckler. Nothing to worry about there. As the finish approached, the sprinters' teams tried to bring the field back together. No luck. Jean-Eudes Demaret of Cofidis won the sprint from the break, ahead of Jimmy Engoulvent of Besson Chaussures-Sojasun and Frédéric Guesdon of Française des Jeux.

In the final general classification, Thomas Voeckler took home the shirt. Slovene Jure Kocjan of CarmioOro A-Style finished second, 1.07 down, and his new sworn enemy Yuri Trofimov finished third at 1.08. Next up on the French calender is Tour Méditerranéen.