Race leader Fabian Cancellara stunned the sprinters in the finish of the third stage in Compiègne,jumping clear of the peloton as they charged to the end of the 236.5 kilometre run from Waregem to Compiègne to take his second stage win of the Tour. The 26 year-old world time trial champion, who took the Maillot Jaune in the prologue in London, timed a powerful jump perfectly with 750 metres to go and rocketed past the day's four-man escape.
Cancellara held off the oncoming sprint led by Erik Zabel (Milram), with Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital) coming a close second. Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Robert Hunter (Barloworld) filled out the top four, while CSC's Cancellara added to his race lead with the 20-second bonus gained on the line.
The winner of the 2006 Paris-Roubaix added to his successful Tour by winning the stage in the city which starts that legendary cobbled Classic, but it wasn't something that was in the plan for his day. "I didn't think that I could win this stage. I only wanted to get to the finish and not crash," said Cancellara after the finish. "I still need to register what I have done today. I think it was the hardest final kilometre of my life."
The day was marked by an early escape by Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel) and Mathieu Ladagnous (Française Des Jeux), while the peloton enjoyed a slow and leisurely day in the saddle. But when Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) and Frederik Willems (Liquigas) bridged up to the pair with 62 kilometres to go, they turned a somewhat predictable stage into a nail-biting, tension-filled finale.
Augé, who started the day tied on points with Saunier Duval's David Millar in the mountains classification moved himself into the jersey by taking maximum points on the day's only climb, the category four Blérancourt at 34 kilometres to go, but it was Willems who provided the impetus for the break to stay clear all the way to Compiègne.
The Belgian Willems opened attacked his three French companions with nine kilometres remaining when the pace began to slacken, but the three men rallied to come back to the Liquigas rider's wheel. After six and a half hours of racing, the 27 year-old Willems launched another attack with 2000 metres to go, but again the three men came back in a series of turns heading into the finale.
But as the peloton came rampaging down the finishing straight, hot on the tail of the four men, it would be the pavé for which this region is famous that would be the deciding factor. With an advantage of extra room to manoeuvre, the Frenchmen led by Vogondy held Willems in check as the peloton slowed slightly to negotiate the cobbles behind, but suddenly a bright yellow jersey shot off the front of the main bunch and barrelled down the road toward them.
At first, it seemed as though Saunier Duval had sent one of its men up the road, but it was in fact the colours of the Maillot Jaune that had attacked the bunch at 750 metres to go. The men of speed had been caught napping in the finale of a decisively sleepy and long day. As Cancellara gritted his teeth to hold his advantage over the bunch, he caught and passed the quartet, and only Ladagnous could fight his way into the CSC rider's wake.
In the end, no rider could touch the speed of the yellow jersey, and Cancellara took his third Tour de France stage with a heaping helping of panache. "It is really great to win here in Compiègne," Cancellara declared after the finish. "I am in very good condition but I didn't think I could do that, to win here.
"I was scared about losing the jersey because the four riders at the front were riding well and had a good gap. My team worked with the other teams of sprinters and they helped me to be here at the front."
"It is fantastic, it is a surprise," said Directeur Sportif Kim Andersen. "It was not planned that he would have a go, but he could see that the jersey was hanging by a few seconds. He is strong, he is powerful and he hadn't worked the whole time. So it was perfect." Denied on a stage that should have been theirs, the sprinters expressed their disappointment after the line. Today, Boonen was looked after by stage two winner Gert Steegmans, but he could only managed to finish fourth.
"We lost a lot of energy to catch those guys," said Belgian Steegmans, who crashed earlier in the stage. "[In the lead-out] Tom lost my wheel, after that I lost the wheel of Steven De Jongh. ... On the pavé [during the sprint] I could not get my way back to the front because of my crash."
The Robs came in fifth to seventh - with Barloworld's Robert Hunter, Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) rolling in in quick succession. The Aussie was quick to the bus after the stage finish, reportedly upset with the sprint tactics of the South African that preceded him. Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile), Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) and Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner) rounded-out the top ten.
32 year-old Augé moved into the Maillot Blanc à Pois Rouges of best mountain-man thanks to his day's escape and now leads with a slim three points over Scot David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir). "I will lose the jersey tomorrow but at least I had it for one day. That is what I wanted when I broke away on stage one.
"The pavé slowed us down, we played cat-n-mouse," the winner of this year's Cholet-Pays de Loire commented on the finale. "In the final kilometre, we missed that win by very little."
How it unfolded
A battered and bruised peloton rolled out at high noon from the Belgian town of Waregem to begin their 236.5 kilometre journey into France for the finish in Compiègne, just metres from the traditional start of Paris-Roubaix. Tomas Vaitkus (Discovery Channel) had overnight surgery to repair a broken thumb he sustained in the crash of the stage two finish and did not start, but the rest of the 187 riders took to the streets under sunny skies.
As is normal with the Tour de France, the attacks began from the first few kilometres, and after a very active start, two riders were able to break clear just six kilometres into the stage.
Frenchman Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel) and Mathieu Ladagnous (Française des Jeux), winner of the 4 Days of Dunkerque, built up a lead of 20 seconds by kilometre 10, and then Vogondy, who was 54 seconds behind leader Fabian Cancellara on the general classification, became the 'virtual' yellow jersey just a few minutes later.
By the time the leading duo reached the first intermediate sprint in Tournai (km 33.5), the peloton, riding piano on the longest stage of the Tour, seemed content to have an easy day to soothe the wounds of the crash victims. Vogondy crossed the line ahead of Ladagnous, both spinning in their small ring, and it was 11 minutes and 35 seconds before Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel) jumped to take third place and two bonus seconds.
The gap reached its maximum at 13'50 at kilometre 44 before the CSC team decided enough is enough and picked up the pace ever so slightly. Still, after the first hour, the average was just over 40 km/h in the first hour.
The second hour would see the peloton practically competing with the breakaway to see who could ride slower, and the race fell farther and farther behind the scheduled time as the riders averaged a mere 30.7 km/h in the second hour, and the riders passed by the roads near Paris-Roubaix's famed Arenberg forest 45 minutes behind schedule.
It was a sleepy summer afternoon for the fans, and former Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc must have been shaking his head in dismay as the race passed through his hometown of Fontaine-au-Bois, where he stood with the rest of the spectators on the side of the road.
Still in their small chain rings, Ladagnous and Vogondy rolled through intermediate sprint number two in front of Leblanc without even a change in effort. Eight minutes later, Frenchman Roman Feillu (Agritubel) decided to liven things up for the crowds as he took a risky dive up the curb and across the gutter to attack around the bunch and take the remaining points.
After Laurent Lefevre rolled ahead to wave to family and friends in the feed zone town of Landrecies, the peloton, fuelled by their mid-afternoon snack, finally got to chasing in earnest once the race turned the halfway point, with Quickstep and Crédit Agricole leading the effort.
The moderate amount of work being done in the field halved the advantage of the two escapees in just 20 minutes, showing that the pair didn't seriously consider their chances of staying clear to the finish. But the chasers weren't ready to catch the duo yet, and let the gap hover around the five minute mark for another hour until 61 kilometres to go when Cofidis' Stéphane Augé decided to attack.
Augé was quickly marked by Liquigas' Frederick Willems, and the two successfully bridge to Ladagnous and Vogondy 9 kilometres later, lending serious weight to the move. Now taking the breakaway more seriously, the CSC team put some men back on the front to protect Cancellara's yellow jersey and brought the leaders within 2'50 by the 40 kilometre to go mark.
However, as the pace heated up, a minor crash in the field took down stage two winner Gert Steegmans and Alexandre Botcharov (Crédit Agricole), but both were relatively unscathed and returned to the peloton. The peloton briefly eased as Quickstep stepped off the gas to let their man rejoin, and Augé was able to take the mountain points on the category four Côte de Blérancourt while the break maintained a 3'20 advantage. Ladagnous and Willems rolled through in second and third.
When the breakaway still held a 2'27 advantage with 20 kilometres to go, all the French fans were on tenterhooks hoping the three-fourths French break would hold on, and as the kilometres ticked down, it was clear the catch would be inside the last kilometre, if at all.
While Quickstep tried to get organised at the front, and CSC pitched in to raise the speed, the four men dangling just 90 seconds ahead of the ravenous clutches of the peloton got nervous, and with 9 kilometres to go, Willems bolted from the three Frenchmen.
An ever attentive Augé jumped right up to the Belgian's wheel, and soon enough the four were back together. The energetic rider from Liquigas encouraged his companions to keep working, and the four gathered themselves for the final push to the line.
With the peloton rampaging into Compiègne just metres behind at the 2 kilometres to go sign, Willems attacked again, but in a series of sharp turns, he did not get far, and the four were together as they hit a section of cobblestones with 1500 metres to go.
As the breakaway entered the final straightaway, Willems put in his final effort, and once more jumped away from the other three. But from the charging peloton, the yellow jersey himself launched out of the pack with 750 metres to go, and putting his time trialling prowess to good use, powered his way past the fading escape and held off Erik Zabel to win the stage. Zabel led the charge to the line ahead of Sicilian bulldog Danilo Napolitano (Lampre).
Stage 4 - Wednesday, July 11: Villers-Cotterêts - Joigny, 193km
Stage four is a classic early Tour de France stage run in the countryside to the east of Paris that traverses the rolling hills of the Champagne region, the wide plains of Brie before the final hills across the Yonne. Once again, an early break will certainly escape before the sprinters' teams pull it back in the final 50 kilometres before the finish in Joigny.
Km 23.5: Côte de Veuilly-la-Poterie: 1.0 km climb @ 5.2% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 62.5: Côte de Doucy: 1.9 km climb @ 4.9% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 144: Côte de Galbaux: 2.4 km climb @ 3.8% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 148.5: Côte de Bel-Air: 1.3 km climb @ 5.4% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 69: La Ferte-Gaucher
Km 122.5: Soligny-Les-Etangs