Cycling: Popovych win offers downcast Discovery team a path forward

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The Independent Online

One year after Lance Armstrong's departure, his former team continue to triumph in the Tour de France - but for now their upper limit are stage wins like yesterday's, won in a lone move by the Texan's former team-mate, Yaroslav Popovych.

After taking off from a break three kilometres from the line, the fervently religious Ukrainian made the sign of the cross three times before he raised his arms in the air for the first Tour stage win of his career.

"I prayed for strength." the Discovery Channel rider said later, "in fact, I prayed all the way through the stage." As little as 12 months ago, success in Tour stages like yesterday's to Carcassonne - of little significance overall - was largely dependent on a rather more terrestrial kind of divinity: Popovych's former team leader, the seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong.

The Texan would personally vet the composition of any breaks before letting it go and if any riders present did not meet with Armstrong's approval, the move would be quickly reeled in by his blue-clad Discovery troops - Popovych among them.

Since the second stage of the Pyrenees on Wednesday, though, after the Discovery Channel leader George Hincapie finished over 20 minutes down, the boot has been truly on the other foot.

"You could class the Tour as a disaster for us," the Briton Sean Yates, an assistant directeur sportif for Discovery, said prior to Popovych's victory. "At least the overall is history now for us." To make matters worse, the American team have suddenly become cursed with the sort of bad luck that always mysteriously plagued their rivals during the Armstrong years.

Popovych's team-mate Paolo Savoldelli started yesterday's stage with 13 stitches in his forehead after riding into a spectator at high speed the day before.

The Italian did not get far: 15 riders, 12 of them former Tour stage winners, were largely to blame when they charged away as the race crossed the foothills of the Pyrenees. A furious chase ensued, with 47 kilometres covered in the first hour of racing - this despite temperatures hitting the high thirties and tarmac melting in the heat.

The 15 were eventually reeled in, but it was all too much for Savoldelli, who zigzagged to the side of the road and abandoned. His injured team-mate Benjamin Noval followed him soon after.

If the news from the back end of the race was anything but good for Discovery, up front Popovych's stage win saved the day for the Americans.

But even the Ukrainian admitted that it was "just as well" that they had not heard from Armstrong, the part owner of the team - as a pro, he was never slow to give a roasting to any riders he considered to be slacking, "Johan [Bruyneel, team manager] told us all today that a new Tour begins for us, looking only for stage wins," he explained.

Ironically enough, these are exactly the same consolation prizes that Armstrong's rivals were forced to settle for during the American's hegemony: after seven years, Discovery are finally finding out what it felt like to be at the other end of the stick.