Maillot jaune does little for Boonen's confidence
With a smile from eye to eye and swinging his arms as if he were running across the line, Davitamon-Lotto's super-sprinter Robbie McEwen continued his winning ways in Vitré, scoring his eleventh Tour stage victory.
"I don't think I'm in the form of my life, I'm just sprinting very well," McEwen said. "I've had times where I actually felt stronger out on the road. But here, the timing and the speed in the sprint forms a funny sort of thing.
"Sometimes you feel very strong, but you can't win. Sometimes you feel average, but you sprint very fast and can't lose. I don't know about the form of my life... but it's pretty good," he grinned.
Some may have thought the loss of his normal Tour de France lead-out man Fred Rodriguez would have posed a few problems, but Gert Steegmans - a winner of five stages himself this season - is proving the perfect replacement.
"He [Steegmans] just starts his engine and takes off; nobody who's doing a lead-out for a sprinter, nor any sprinter, has got an answer to his power," praised McEwen, who described the 25 year-old youngster as his very own TGV.
"We decided on the tactics. I told him not to start not one metre before the 400 metre mark. That's exactly what he did; he was really relaxed and stayed in the wheels. We made sure which side of him would stay open. When he started, I really had to jump to get into his wheel, and when I have to jump to get into a wheel, that means that probably nobody else can follow.
"We backed off again and I just went on the inside of him. I felt like I started to slow down but I was so wound up... number three, here we go! This is incredible, three in the first week, it doesn't get any better," he said.
"It's really nice [people who] acknowledge that there some magic between the two of us," Steegmans told Cyclingnews. "He trusts that I can do it, and it's working out.
"Everybody knows that they need to be in front in the sprint and they probably hope that he [McEwen] has sore legs or something. We really try to show up as late as possible and it's proved successful twice now. Yesterday, I misinterpreted the signals, but now it's alright!" exclaimed the young Belgian, who's quickly becoming one of the hottest prospects in world cycling.
The apparent ease with which the 34 year-old Gold Coaster is winning stages in the world's biggest bike race almost defies belief. Without a doubt, it's playing on the minds of his arch-rivals and particularly Tom Boonen, who is yet to notch a sprint win so far.
Today just made things worse for the world champion maillot jaune, who went searching for a good wheel to follow but came up empty. The one-point gap between he and McEwen, and the seven between McEwen and Oscar Freire, is now 10 and 22 points respectively.
In fact, it's Lampre-Fondital's Daniele Bennati who's so far proving to be best of the rest in the battle for green, his second place today moving him 41 points behind the Aussie sprint king.
And if things weren't already going well enough for Rocket Robbie, he now finds himself second overall on the Classement Générale, just 12 seconds behind Boonen. At the post-race press conference, he didn't say one thing about it - but if McEwen keeps going the way he's going, he'll end up talking about it!
"One last thing," McEwen said before leaving today's press conference.
"I had a bet with Levi Leipheimer... we've been talking about it since March in Tirreno-Adriatico. He told me to do a victory salute, but a special one: the Dumb and Dumber move, from the movie. When you saw it, you know that it looks like you're running really fast," he said, swinging his arms.
"Levi will be happy with that and now he owes me!"
How it unfolded
On the day before a big time trial, the GC contenders often want to downshift and chill, so Friday was a wide open stage through the backwoods of western France to Vitré. 171 riders started under partly cloudy skies and moderate 21 degree temps, with Milram's Fabio Sacchi was a non-starter due to worsening bronchitis.
Stage 5 had one categorized climb, the Cat 3 Cote de la Huniere (after 27.5 km) and three intermediate sprints in Villedieu-les-Bailleul (46.0 km), Chantrigne (116.5 km) and Juvigne (162.5 km).
Cofidis rider Stephane Augé was on the attack after 9 km on the climb out of the Normandy town of Liseux and was joined by Cente Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Lopez Garcia (Euskaltel), Beppe "Turbo" Guerini (T-Mobile) and big-boy Maggie Bäckstedt (Liquigas). This quintet got a 30" gap but Bouygues Telecom had missed the break and was chasing hard to defend the lead of their maillot á pois Pineau. The pursuit worked well enough as climber Beppe Turbo and Cente Garcia took points just ahead of Pineau and it was peloton groupé after 32 km.
Two French riders, Augé and Vaugrenard (FDJ), attacked just before the first intermediate sprint in Villedieu-les-Bailleul (46.0 km), where Vaugrenard won and used the time bonus to go back into the lead of the maillot blanc of best young rider. The first hour was run at the rapid average of 46.9 km/h and after Argentan at the 49 km mark, Brard (Caisse d'Epargne), Knees (Milram) and Camano (Euskaltel) bridged across. 10 km later in Fontenai-sur-Orna, 13 riders came across to swell the break to 18. The new arrivals included Padrnos (Discovery), Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Calzati (A2GR), Wrolich (Gerolsteiner), Flecha (Rabobank), Merckx (Phonak), Boonen (Quick.Step), Hushovd (C.A), Gilbert (FDJ), Bäckstedt and Quinziato (Liquigas), Geslin and Lefèvre (Bouygues).
With the maillot jaune on the move and the gap up to 1'10 after 15 km of freedom, CSC hit the front to quash the break with a hard chase, and Lampre-Fondital joined them to pull the big escape back. When big Maggie realised that the break was doomed, he attacked after 70 km in Saint Brice Sous Ranes and was joined by local lad Geslin and French champ Brard.
The rest of the break was brought back 10 km later, while Maggie's move had 35" after 80 km. At the feed zone in Bagnoles-de-lOrne after 92 km, the front trio had 3'55", with the average speed for hour two 44.7 km/h. Quick.Step, Rabobank and Davitamon-Lotto were riding tempo on the front of the peloton and Geslin won the second intermediate sprint in Chantrigne after 116.5 km, with the peloton 4'10"behind and closing.
The lead began to drop as the chasers upped the pace. Brard claimed won the third intermediate sprint in Juvigne after 162.5 km, with the peloton just 1'15" behind. With 10 km to race on the outskirts of Vitre, the gap was just 25" and the break was finally caught with 4.5 km to go. Today, Robbie McEwen's new lead-out man, big Geert Steegmans, got his timing just right as the Aussie from Davitamon-Lotto took his 11th career Tour de France stage win.
Stage 7 - Saturday, July 8: Saint-Grégoire-Rennes ITT, 52 km
The first moment of truth at the 2006 Tour is a 52 km time test from Saint-Grégoire to Rennes across the countryside of northeast Brittany. Mostly rolling with a flat finish, the TT should show the first signs of who can win the Tour this year.
T-Mobile's World TT champ Mick Rogers is looking for a stage win and the maillot jaune, but Phonak's Floyd Landis may have something to say about that. Leipheimer, Hincapie and other GC hopefuls are also looking for a good ride tomorrow, while CSC's Dave Zabriskie is another rider to watch for a stage win.