Fireworks at the Tour de France, a day early

I expected tomorrow to be the next potentially decisive day at the Tour de France, with another mountaintop finish, this time ending with the Cat 1 climb up Verbier.

But unexpected drama came today when George Hincapie joined an early breakaway and became the virtual yellow jersey leader after they opened up enough of a gap to the peloton. Late in the race, after Hincapie finished, his virtual yellow jersey would only become an actual one if the peloton finished far enough behind. It was going to be close.

Hincapie is the only rider to be Armstrong's teammate for all 7 of Lance's TDF wins, and by all accounts they've remained friends even after Lance retired and Hincapie moved on to Team Columbia HTC. The only team that appeared to have any incentive to chase down Hincapie's lead was Ag2r since they currently held the yellow jersey, and they didn't appear to have the legs to lead the peloton out at the end.

That's when Team Garmin-Slipstream came to the front to pull hard, and because of their push, Hincapie ended up just 5 tantalizing seconds short of wearing yellow.

In a post-race interview, Hincapie blamed not just Garmin but Armstrong's Team Astana, questioning why those teams, with many of his former teammates, would deny him the opportunity to wear yellow.

Armstrong responded via Twitter over the confusion over what had happened late in the race:

St14 done. Sounds like there's quite a bit of confusion over this one... Noone, and I mean noone, wanted George in yellow more than me.

Our team rode a moderate tempo to put him in the jersey by at least 2 mins. Ag2r said they would not defend then they started to ride.

Until 10km to go he was solidly in yellow until GARMIN put on the gas and made sure it didn't happen.

And I reiterate. @ghincapie deserves to be yellow tonight. He deserves more than that. Look to who pulled the last 50k to see who to blame.

@bfogelstrom And george should be pissed. Very pissed. He can talk to his teammates who were n the bunch w/ us then perhaps it will be clear

@bbelshaw told astana 2 chase? Not true @ all. My vision was george would have YJ by 2 mins. Was reality til ag2r and garmin started 2 pull.

Last thing. There were 13 guys in the breakaway. We had 2 guys riding "tempo". That is not chasing by any stretch of the imagination.

@matkearns why we pulled so hard? When we started it was 6:00. When we stopped it was 8:40. Those are the facts...

As of now, Hincapie had not responded via his Twitter account.

Armstrong's one competitive guy, but it doesn't make any sense for him to keep George out of yellow. Hincapie isn't a podium contender, they go way back together. As for Garmin, there is a history of rivalry between them and Team Columbia, but their move seems short-sighted given that they have a rider still up in the top 10 in Christian Vande Velde. With the tough mountain stages to come in this next week, they made few friends today.

For those who aren't huge cycling race fans, it may seem odd that teams would grant favors, or why every team wouldn't just race as hard as possible at all times. This is still a competition, after all. The in-race tactics are more fascinating if regarded as a series of moves in a series of races within the race, and cycling is a much richer specimen for game theory study than many people realize.

A 5 second margin is so slim that it's not clear that any one team's tactics really caused George to miss out. It's almost impossible to tell what happened from watching on TV, and it may be that it will never be sorted out. In any sport in which you draw a finish line, there will be winners and losers.

Here's hoping George and Lance sort things out face to face. I'm a fan of the increased access to riders via Twitter and blogs, but I hate when athletes and coaches sort things out in public rather than in person. Too much can be lost in translation through the written word, especially when truncated to 140 characters. It's difficult enough to convey tone in e-mail.

If you've been passing on keeping up with the Tour, tomorrow morning's the next stage to get up early for. All the Tour contenders will be trying to make their move, and Lance may have an early showdown with his teammate Contador to establish who's strongest. Most cycling analysts, if pressed, would still put their money on the younger man and his brutal climbing attack capability, but it wouldn't be any fun if Lance waltzed through his comeback without a formidable competitor.