Today's ninth stage to Dax was maybe the one stage most designed for a bunch sprint of all stages, as the Landes region South of Bordeaux is probably as flat as the calm Atlantic ocean on its coastline. Also driven by that last fast men's chance before Le Tour hits the mountains, the race did not fail to unfold as predicted, with three-times World champion Oscar Freire taking his second victory in France this summer. Green jersey Robbie McEwen finished second; the former champion of the sprinter's classification, experienced Erik Zabel got third and the current World champion, Tom Boonen, again failed to find the right moment to start his move and placed fourth.
"I didn't know that I had won the race, as McEwen was closing in very fast," a happy Freire said at the finish, explaining why he hadn't raised his arms on the line. "Due to the way the sprints are unfolding, it’s not always the strongest rider who wins the race. For example today, I might not have been the strongest in the race," he added, probably thinking about McEwen, who almost got him on the line as the photo finish showed.
But Freire also had understanding words for the struggling Tom Boonen. "Everything’s going wrong for him: sometimes he starts the sprint too early, then he gets boxed in," the Spanish triple World champ said. "But it’s really not that bad, as he wore the yellow jersey for a few days; I think that’s very nice as well. He’s also struggling with the high expectations of the Belgian press, which of course he can't always satisfy."
Freire, whose wife is due to give birth to the couple's first child this week, passed Boonen as well as Zabel on the last 200 metres, whereas McEwen ignited his typically explosive move from behind. It was only the width of the Spaniard's front wheel tyre that prevented the Australian from winning yet another stage in this year's Tour de France, where he has largely dominated his rivals.
"I was just starting to really accelerate when we hit the line, I hadn't even got into top gear yet," said McEwen. "That’s what happens on the Tour. Sometimes you need a bit of luck to get out and I didn't think I was going to get out at all, so in the last 40m I rescued a few points. It would have been nice to win another one but... that’s how the Tour goes you don't win 'em every day and maybe if I won it would get a bit boring - Hey not for me, but for everybody else!"
German Erik Zabel moved off Boonen's wheel to score third for the second time in this Tour - his best result yet. "It was almost as in the old days - I showed that I can still hold on," he said, recalling that it was in Dax where he took the first Tour de France stage win of his career in 1995. "Once I passed Tom, I hoped for the win for a brief moment, but it was too good to be true. Still, it was very tight, so that gives me lots of morale."
The stage was marked by a three-man breakaway including Christian Knees (Milram) - who was later elected most combative rider as it was the German who initiated the early move at km 7 - as well as Walter Bénéteau (Bouygues Telecom) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis). The German was happy to have made it to the podium to receive his honours, even though it hadn't been the stage win for him.
"Towards the end, I tried to attack as I would have stood a greater chance to succeed, but it wasn't to be," Knees said. "I knew that it was over as I couldn't get away in the final 10k." The break was caught under the 4 km-mark. "Still it's a great feeling to be on that podium!," a happy but exhausted Knees added.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Serguei Gonchar of course still leads the general classification, and T-Mobile will head into tomorrow's first mountain stage from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau with four riders in top six.
"The other teams will attack us, as we have the jersey," said team director Olaf Ludwig on Monday. "Our handicap is that we only have seven riders left, so we cannot - and will not - play the part that Discovery Channel has played in the last years in the race. There will be many tactical games and variations. But we do have a lot of different possibilities."
According to Ludwig, these also included "letting the jersey go in a controlled way", if the race situation allowed it. So tomorrow's Col du Marie-Blanque, the last climb before the finish about 45 kilometres away, will reveal their tactics for the days to come.
How it unfolded
Phase Two of the 93rd Tour began today as the peloton headed south through the piney woods of Les Landes on this dead flat stage to Dax, hometown of renowned French road sprinter Andre' Darrigade. Stage 9 offered three intermediate sprints in Le Barp (25.5km), Parentis-en-Born (72.0km) and Saint-Girons (128.0km), with no categorized climbs on the billiard table flat stage through the piney woods that stretch south of Bordeaux all the way to the foothills of the Pyrenees.
170 riders started stage 9 in Bordeaux at 1:15, with the temps at 27 degrees on a bright, sunny day. After a 9.7km neutral zone, there were a flurry of attacks, and after 16km on the southwest outskirts of Bordeaux near Cestas, three riders finally formed the right combination to stay away, long, tall German Chris Knees (Milram) was away first and was then joined by two French breakaway specialists, Walter Bénéteau (Bouygues Telecom) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis). The trio quickly gained ground and by the first intermediate sprint in Le Barf after 25.5km, they had gained 4'00 after 10km where the opportunistic Bénéteau took the points.
The front trio continued to cruise away from the T-Mobile peloton as the northwest wind gave them a hand as they break cruised past the various salt water lakes filled with tasty oysters. But no one was eating the bivalves on the hot July afternoon as the peloton was stretched into one long line through the piney woods. Credit Agricole, Quickstep and Lampre were helping maillot jaune Gonchar's T-Mobile men with the chase.
At the day's second intermediate sprint in Parentis-en-Born, it was Bouygues' Bénéteau who boogied across the sprint line first, while the peloton was closing down slightly, with the lead at 7'15.
Mario Cipollini was a special guest in the Liquigas-Bianchi team car with his good friend Mario Scirea driving and Cipo was celebrating gli Azzurri's World Cup win by hanging out of the team car with an Italian tricolore flag, but restrained himself from taunting the French riders.
At the third and final intermediate sprint in Saint-Girons after 128.0km, Bénéteau took the points again and with 40km to go on the long, straight roads to Dax, the peloton was at 4'00 and chasing hard. The afternoon sun beat down through a slight overcast on the humid afternoon as the temps were over 30 degrees and the racing was hot too. Augé was soft pedaling in the break as was Beneteau, while the big German was doing more than 40% of the work in the escape.
With 17km to go, Chris Knees took off to try and dump the soft pedaling French riders and after a tough chase, they managed to catch the strong German. Bénéteau chastised Knees, who didn't like the idea of pulling the two French riders to the finish. The peloton was going all out 1'40 behind, with Quick.Step, Davitamon-Lotto, Lampre, Credit Agricole, Rabobank and Française de Jeux all riding hard to bring the break back.
At 10km to go approaching Dax, the gap was down to 1'00 and falling fast as Bram 'The Tank' Tankink was taking huge turns on the front for Quick.Step. Knees tried to dump the French again with 6km to go, but this time, only Beneteau could bring him back as Augé dropped off, but then got back with 5km to go. With 4.5km to go, Bénéteau made a move but he was going nowhere fast as they break was caught with 4km to race after 149km of liberty. Albasini of Liquigas-Bianchi was on the front in the twisty streets of Dax for Paolini, with CSC behind, who launched O'Grady for an early attack with 1500m to go.
Pozzato upped the pace to keep to keep O'Grady to heel, while behind were Tosatto, DeJongh and Boonen at the 1 km kite. Liquigas-Bianchi, inspired by the presence of Mario Cipollini in their team car had Quinziato and Big Boy Bäckstedt humping hard with 750m. It was the most anarchic, wide open sprint yet at this Tour and at 500m to go, next to hit the front was Credit Agricole, but as Seb Hinault peeled off, Julian Dean hesitated as he knew it was too early to start the sprint for Hushovd.
The sprint was totally uncertain as the rush to the line became a drag race. Boonen got nervous with 250m to go and went long on the right side, with Zabel following him. Biding his time in seventh position like a patient pussycat was Rabobank's Oscar Freire, while maillot vert Robbie McEwen had chosen to follow the wheels and not make full use of his teammate Steegmans for a lead out. Boonen looked good for a while along the right-hand barriers, but with 100m to go, Freire made another one of his catlike jumps and accelerated past Zabel and Boonen, hitting the front with 50m to go. Robbie Mac was on Freire's wheel until he jumped and then lost it. McEwen zoomed left, took the long way around into the wind and almost got the swift Spaniard with a bike throw, but the three time World Champ is almost impossible to come around and Macman had to be content with being second.
Stage 10 - Wednesday, July 12: Cambo-les-Bains-Pau, 190.5km
Let the games begin! The first real climbing starts today at Le Tour and with the long Col du Soudet and the steep Col de Marie Blanque on le menu, there should be the first real selection at this years Tour, but with the summit of Marie Blanque 45km from Pau, there ought to be a 40 rider group together for the sprint on the Rue du Maquis de Bearn.