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Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) wins the sprint
Three times Paris-Tours winner Erik Zabel from Milram was royal to give a lead out to his team-mate Alessandro Petacchi, who claimed the classic of the sprinters for the first time ahead of his compatriot Francesco Chicchi of Liquigas. Zabel led out Petacchi on the right hand side of the Avenue de Grammont, followed by Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank). McEwen unclipped and almost crashed into Freire, but both stayed upright. However, the mishap cost them both and while Freire came in third, McEwen ended up back in sixth. Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux), Karsten Kroon (Team CSC) and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) tried to foil the sprinters' plans in the finale, but were caught by the charging field within the last kilometre.
Paris-Tours is Petacchi's second win in a classic after Milano-Sanremo in 2005. "There aren't many of them that I can win," he said. "Paris-Tours is very adapted to my characteristics. The long distance makes it a great race. We have done a magnificent sprint. The team has worked well, particularly Zabel who has done an exemplary job at the end."
Zabel is the man who beat Petacchi out at the same place in 2003 when the Italian scored his best result in Paris-Tours. "I remember I went from too far away, the Italian explained. Thinking of that, I've done a shorter sprint today. I've waited till the very end for the final action."
Petacchi was full of praise for his German companion. "He has been my main rival during my whole career, so having him at my service now is fantastic. When we race together, unless I tell him that I'm not well, we don't need to speak about who will work for who. We're both experts in sprinting. Erik is a very humble rider. He sacrifices himself automatically because he knows that I'm a little faster than he. It's an honour for me that he leads me out and I feel sorry for him because he's such a great sprinter and he has won this race three times before. At his age (37), he still has a marvelous grinta. Doing it with him, it's like if I had won Paris-Tours twice today."
There aren't many new targets left for Petacchi who has now stages in the three Grand Tours, Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Tours on his record book. "But I never get tired of winning," he said. "It's my job to win. I wouldn't mind winning Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Tours again." He denied that Zabel will leave Milram for next year. "We spoke about it during the race today. He said he'd do his last season with us again next year; I like the idea that he'll finish his career at my service."
Petacchi plans to return to the Tour de France in 2008, something he has been unable to do this year because of CONI asking for his doping suspension, following a positive control after stage 11 in the Tour of Italy. He got cleared by the Italian cycling federation, but CONI and WADA have appealed the decision. "I don't want to make any further comment about that now," Petacchi said. "It's useless to keep talking about it. Let's wait for the decision of the CAS at the end of November. All I can say is I hope it'll finish well and basta."
Very early on, the race was fast and nervous, with a group of 22 riders taking off at kilometre seven. The group consisted of Matti Breschel (CSC), Jimmy Engoulvent (Crédit Agricole), Nicolas Rousseau (Ag2R), Thomas Fothen (Gerolsteiner), Roberto Longo Borghini (Lampre), Kevin Hulsmans (Quick Step), Tomas Vaitkus and Brian Vandborg (Discovery Channel), Erki Pütsep and Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Telecom), Matthew Hayman and Joost Posthuma (Rabobank), Hervé Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis), Maarten Tjallingii, Floris Goesinnen and Piet Rooijakers (Skill-Shimano), Niki Terpstra (Milram), Andreï Kuschynski (Liquigas), Johan Coenen (Chocolate Jacques), Benoît Sinner (Agritubel), Raivis Belohvosciks (Saunier Duval) and Daniel Musiol (Wiesenhof).
At km 19, their advantage over the bunch was 0'39". Under the pressure of Française des Jeux and Predictor-Lotto, who weren't represented in the escape, the bunch fell to pieces, with a chase group of about 80 riders forming behind the escapees. Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel) were among the riders dropped off before reintegrating the main bunch. Still, the 22 riders in front resisted until km 93, where they were caught.
After that, it was peloton groupé until km 106, when another breakaway formed, including Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Cancellara, Bak, Breschel, Goss and Kroon (CSC), Hinault, Hivert and Kern (Crédit Agricole), Dion, Krivtsov and Riblon (AG2R), Gatto, Krauss and Stamsnijder (Gerolsteiner), Napolitano and Bono (Lampre), Van Avermaet (Predictor), Roeseler, Vasseur (Quickstep), Voeckler (Bouygues), De Maar (Rabobank), Boucher (Landbouwkrediet), Duclos-Lassalle and Minard (Cofidis), Van Hummel and Vierhouten (Skil-Shimano), Fischer, Kuschynski and Quinziato (Liquigas), Lastras and Losada Alguacil (Caisse d'Epargne), Anton and Isasi (Euskaltel) as well as Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques).
Too big and dangerous, this breakaway wasn't given too much space either: 30 kilometres later, it still only had 40 seconds over the bunch. After an unsuccessful attack of Roeseler and Voeckler, it was David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Serge Pauwels (Chocolade Jacques) who finally formed a three-men escape out of the front group, which was given the Go by the sprinters' teams.
This breakaway quickly gained momentum, increasing its advantage to a maximum of 7'55" at km 172. But then, the sprinters' teams didn't want to make the same mistake again as last year, and started putting some pressure on with 80 kilometres to go. As the gap was brought down, the race remained fast. With 30 kilometres to go, Pauwels couldn't hold the pace anymore and was dropped first, followed by Boucher. Quinziato had decided to leave him behind and give it a go by himself.
As he passed the 20 kilometre-mark, the Italian still had more than two minutes advantage, but with seven kilometres to go, it was over for him. Immediately, another attack formed at the côte du petit pas d'âne during the hilly finale: Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Karsten Kroon (CSC) and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) got away and created a 20 second-gap to the chasing bunch. Once again, like in 2002 with Jacky Durand and Jakob Pill and last year with Frédéric Guesdon and Kurt-Asle Arvesen, a strong move in the end included a rider from Française des Jeux and from CSC. Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), later joined by José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), tried to counter the move, but failed.
Kroon had the excuse of waiting for Cancellara, but Gilbert was the most active of the leading trio. "Pozzato was the fastest of us, the Belgian said. 8 times out of 10 he'd beat me in a sprint. It was up to him to assume his responsibilities or not. He didn't, that's why our action failed. Never mind."
Gilbert, Kroon and Pozzato were caught with 500 meters to go, just after passing under the red flag of the final kilometre. On the finishing straight, Alessandro Petacchi was led out by Erik Zabel. Just behind the Italian, Oscar Freire tried to come around him, but was pushed to the side by Robbie McEwen, who lost his pedal and swerved. Both remained on their saddles though as 'Ale Jet' raised his arms in triumph, winning his first Paris-Tours.