'A little luck' puts American-based Tour team in yellow

SUPER-BESSE, France -- The daily Tour de France medical report described Stefan Schumacher's injuries as "wounds and contusions on the left side, without apparent seriousness." That didn't take into account the psychic bloodying Schumacher took as a freak crash and an esoteric rule stripped him of the race leader's yellow jersey.

One rider's misery was another team's bounty. Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen, a factor in nearly every finish this week, took over the lead after Schumacher touched his back wheel and went down just a little more than 300 yards from the finish in this small ski town in the verdant, volcanically formed Massif Central mountain range.

"It took a little luck, but we'll take it," an understandably exuberant Team Columbia owner Bob Stapleton said at the finish line.

A year ago this month, his organization -- then sponsored by the German telecommunications giant T-Mobile -- was reeling from an embarrassing positive doping test and a fresh wave of criticism from that country's press and public. Now, with a new internal testing program and the backing of an American sportswear company, Team Columbia is quickly making bygones appear to be bygones.

It takes work to make luck. Kirchen, the first rider from Luxembourg to wear the yellow jersey in a half-century, was where he has been practically all week -- jousting for a stage win. The leader of the other U.S.-based team in the Tour, Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vande Velde, split the group by joining one other rider in an assertive but ultimately unsuccessful attack about halfway up the 6-mile-long, 4,189-foot climb. They were caught by a group that included several overall contenders, including Australia's Cadel Evans and Spain's Alejandro Valverde.

As roughly 20 riders bore down for the final sprint into a headwind, angling to the right, Schumacher was maneuvering for position when he glanced off Kirchen's wheel and crashed. Gifted young Italian rider Ricardo Ricco of the Saunier Duval team took the stage win ahead of Evans and Valverde. Kirchen, who'd been just 12 seconds behind Schumacher heading into Thursday, gained enough time on the fallen German to vault ahead of him and now leads Evans by a scant six seconds.

In bunch sprint situations in a flat stage, race rules award the peloton's time to any rider who crashes within the last 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) of the finish. The regulation is designed to prevent riders from being unduly penalized by high-speed chain reaction wrecks that sometimes take down dozens of men.

But the rule doesn't apply on uphill finishes, where fewer riders are in the mix and collisions are rare. If a rider has the misfortune to take a tumble at close range of the finish on the last incline, he's just plumb out of luck.

An irritated Schumacher, who rides for the Gerolsteiner team, accused Kirchen of causing him to crash. The phlegmatic 30-year-old said that came as news to him. "I hadn't seen him for the last two kilometers," Kirchen told reporters.

The next couple of stages feature similar undulating terrain and sinuous roads, with downhill or flat finishes and no climb harder than a modest Category 2. It may be hard for Team Columbia to defend the jersey in the short term, but Kirchen thinks his chances at the overall are as good as anyone's in this so-far unpredictable race.

"I have exceptional form right now," he said. "We'll try to stay with the best climbers in the mountains. If I get through the Pyrenees without losing too much time, I'll take my chances in the Alps and then Paris."

Although Kirchen seemed to take his new role in stride, Stapleton said he celebrated "when no one was looking."

"He's been in the row in back of the top guys for a couple of years now," Stapleton said of Kirchen, who is in his second season with the team. "He finished seventh in the Tour last year and nobody noticed."

Better known as a classics rider who is not in the top echelon of climbers, Kirchen won this year's prestigious Fleche-Wallonne race by outsprinting Evans and Valverde, but skipped some other races normally on his calendar in order to focus on the Tour, Stapleton said.

"He's a very thoughtful guy, meticulous in his planning," Stapleton said.

Now, he's also the first rider from his tiny country since Charly Gaul to start a Tour stage in yellow since 1959. Gaul wore the jersey on the first day of that year's race by virtue of winning the Tour the previous year. That was "49 years and 15 days ago," said veteran Luxembourg newspaperman Petz Lahure, who's covered more than 30 Tours himself.

Not that he was counting.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.