Maillot jaune stays put - but for how long?
A straight, 1,200 metre slightly uphill finish on Saint-Quentin's Boulevard Gambetta led many pundits to believe this would be maillot jaune Tom Boonen's day. But with more push and shove than you could poke a stick at, the Tour tables began turning in favour of Robbie McEwen, who has an uncanny knack of safeguarding himself in his own little world until he crosses the line.
And that's exactly what happened today.
With the last of the early break caught less than two kilometres from the finish, a grande bagarre between the sprinters' teams ensued. Under the flamme rouge, though, the bigger boys appeared to grow scared of what was happening around them and focused more on dodging disaster - but pocket rocket Robbie put the power through the pedals to open a massive three bike-length gap by the finish, taking his tenth Tour de France stage victory.
"I saw in the road book that this finish suited me perfectly to my characteristics as a sprinter," began McEwen, "being slightly uphill and with a slight corner to the left with 200 metres to go.
"I had a tactic in my head already since last Wednesday for this sprint. I told [Gert] Steegmans what we would do with about 100 kilometres to go. I told him just to keep listening to me, and just wait for me to give him the signal.
"He almost took off too early, but I got him back on the rails. We waited until 450 metres to go and from then, we came off the [other's] wheels. We went flat out, and imagined that the finish line was at 200 metres to go. He did exactly to the letter what I said. It made it simple for me, but I didn't dare to look around. Now I saw on TV that there was nobody in the neighbourhood. I want to dedicate this victory to Freddy [Rodriguez], who had to abandon yesterday."
A distant second and third were Caisse d'Epargne's Isaac Galvez and three-time world champion Oscar Freire; Hushovd and Boonen rounded out the top five until the former's irregular sprinting cost him his place. Consequently, we now find another change in the maillot vert - with McEwen enjoying his second spell in green in as many days.
"So much can happen in one day," said the 34 year-old Queenslander. "For example yesterday, I didn't get any points while others did take some, but I've taken back the jersey today. Hushovd came across today like what happened to me last year; he got disqualified. It shows you how quickly a green jersey dream can fade away."
Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) was one of five riders in today's day-long escape, and told Cyclingnews that even though a lot of hard work amounted to nothing, he was satisfied with his efforts.
"It was the plan with the team this morning to be in the break," said Wiggins. "I shouldn't spare my energy for the time trial of Saturday because I don't have a chance in a big race like this. I'll go flat out, but normally it will be too hard for me. The prologue was alright, although the second half was better for me than the first half.
"I knew we would never stay away. It would be a matter of time before Quickstep brought us back although it surprised me that we were caught that late."
After four changes in four days, the maillot jaune stays put, continuing to rest on Boonen's broad shoulders. Although it's by no means a safe place; there's still just a second that separates him from T-Mobile's Michael Rogers, with George Hincapie and Thor Hushovd no more than seven seconds away.
In this opening week, however, it's all about chasing green. That's all McEwen's thinking about - as well as balancing his stage victories at the Giro and Tour - even though he's got a real shot of yellow if things keep going his way.
"I hope to bring it level in this Tour de France, but I will be happy as well if it develops into a 11-14 balance. We're just going to keep trying to win stages and in that way I can keep gathering points for the green jersey," McEwen said.
How it unfolded
On a cooler day than Tuesday's ovenlike conditions, a Tour peloton of 172 riders headed west under sunny skies with temps in the upper twenties from Huy, located in south-central Belgium.
Maillot a pois Jerome Pineau took the GPM points after 13km of racing ahead of De la Fuente and Wegmann. After an attack that contained maillot jaune Boonen, Discovery Channel's Egoi Martinez made a countermove 18.5km past Ohey and was joined by three other riders by the 21km mark. The front quartet was Wiggins (Cofidis), Mengin (Francaise de Jeux), Lefevre (Bouyges Telecom) and Coutouly (Agritubel). The lead grew quickly as once again, the depeleted Tour de France peloton wasn't up to a big bagarre and let the break go.
After 37km near Yvoir, scene of the 1968 world championships, the break had gained 3' and Martinez was virtual maillot jaune, while 38.1km were raced in the first hour. Maillot jaune Boonen's Quick.Step-Innergetic squad was riding tempo on the front of the peloton. Atop the Cat 4 Cote de Falaen after 57.5km, it was the diminutive Lefevre who took the GPM ahead of Martinez, with the peloton trailing 4'30" behind.
The pace was steady both in the break and in the peloton and after two hours of racing, the break was nearing Phillipeville and the average speed after two hours was 38.9km/h. At the feed zone in Cerfontaine after 84km, the breaks lead was almost 5', but one the peloton passed through, Quick.Step-Innergetic picked up the pace.
At the first intermediate sprint in Beaumont after 103km, Discovery Channel's Egoi Martinez took the honours over Lefevre. The break was just 2km from the French border, but the parcours turned due south, then southeast to head over the border 11km later. There were now 90km to the finish in and the break rode 41.8km in hour 3, with the overall average speed at 39.6km/h. The Quick.Step-Innergetic led peloton was riding faster now and the breaks lead was down to 4'. Across the flat green farmlands of northern France, the pursuit match was on as the break tried to make it to Saint-Quentin ahead of the sprinters.
At the second intermediate sprint in Sains-du-Nord after 135.5km, it was Martinez ahead of Mengin, with the lead just 3'30" and Davitamon-Lotto now in the chase with Quick.Step-Innergetic and 71km to go. 21km later in Le Nouvion-En-Theriade with 50km to race, the break's lead was 2'30" as the sprinters teams, now including the Milram milkmen cranked up the chase pace behind.
With 30km to race in the tiny village of Grand-Verly, Lampre-Fondital had joined the chase and the break was doomed as their margin was now just at 2'. At the day's third and final intermediate sprints in Bernot after 188.0km, Martinez made it a clean sweep ahead of Lefevre and the peloton was rolling up fast, just 1'15" behind. With 15km to go, Isaac Galvez (Caisse d'Epargne-Iles Balears) and Iban Mayo (Eukaltel-Euskadi) hit the deck, but both got back in the peloton after a 5km chase.
With 12km to go, the break split, with Martinez, Lefevre and Coutouly dumping Wiggins and Mengin. At 7km to go, Wiggins and Mengin were swallowed up by the Liquigas-Bianchi peloton, while the three front riders still had a gap of 30".
The three riders looked like they might have a chance to come in ahead of the fast-closing peloton until Lefevre attacked the break with 3km to go and ruined the collaboration. They were caught with 1.5km to go and Team Milram led the charge into the final kilometre. Then Quick.Step-Innergetic took over and suddenly Davitamon-Lotto's Robbie McEwen made his move up the centre of the road after a huge leadout from Gert Steegmans, and rode a brilliant sprint to win his 10th career Tour de France stage, while Quick.Step-Innergetic's maillot jaune Tom Boonen was 5th, but still kept his race lead.
Stage 5 - Thursday, July 6: Beauvais-Caen, 225 km
After almost a week of racing, there are bound to be some tired legs in Le Tour and Stage 5 across the the lumpy, bumpy little roads of Normandy to Caen, the home of tasty tripe and le Trou Normand. One could see a break with newly crowned French champ Flo Brard staving off the onslaught of sprinters' teams in the finale. But not likely.