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Hello and welcome to the Cyclingnews live coverage of stage four of the Tour de France.
The flat 153.5km stage brings the peloton from Cambrai to the beautiful cathedral city of Reims.
After two tough days on classics terrain, today’s stage should see the sprinters come back out to play, but there will be no shortage of willing attackers as the bunch barrels through Champagne country.
The peloton is currently rolling through Cambrai in the neutral section before the flag is dropped. The action will begin soon. Cambrai last hosted a start in 2004.
The flag has been dropped and the race is underway. Nice, calm conditions on the road today, with very little wind.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) is among the starters, but he says he won’t be sprinting today. He broke his wrist in the Ardennes on Monday, but somehow came through the cobbles yesterday. “I hope to be able to sprint again by the second week of racing. I think I'll need a few more days to let the swelling go down and everything, before being competitive again," he said afterwards.
The first attack of the day has shot off the front. Dmitri Champion (Ag2r) sparked it, and he's been joined by Iban Mayoz (Footon-Servetto), Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox-Bouygues Telecom), Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
The escapees are working well together, and the peloton isn't pulling too hard behind.
The last time the Tour had a stage to Reims in 2002, Robbie McEwen sprinted to victory. He's comfortably in the peloton at the moment. Although "comfortably" might be the wrong word, he's bandaged up and still bearing the scars of a crash on Monday's stage.
The five up front are pushing on and the peloton does not seem overly concerned about the chase. Alberto Contador and IVan Basso are sharing a joke halfway down the bunch. It's still very early in the stage.
The breakaway is approaching the first sprint of the day.
The sprint isn't contested. Mayoz passes across the line at Walincourt-Selvigny ahead of Champion and De Greef.
The riders are keen to ease their way into today's stage after what must have seemed like riding back to back classics on Monday and Tuesday. They'll be glad the organisers haven't opted to continue the classics theme today. When the Tour came here in 1991, the stage was an incredible 286km jaunt from Dijon, almost as long as Milan-San Remo!
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov pipped Olaf Ludwig and Sean Kelly in the sprint that day by the way. The stage took almost eight hours! The peloton will be glad today’s distance is a little more manageable, at a shade over 150km.
None of the five riders up front have ever won a Tour de France stage before. Indeed, Champion, De Greef and Mayoz are making their Tour debuts
Lance Armstrong isn't looking particularly happy in the peloton. He had a tough day yesterday on the cobbles. “Sometimes you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. Today I was the nail. I’ve had plenty days when I was the hammer,” said Armstrong afterwards.
Last night, he also wound up sharing a hotel with the Rabobank team who were celebrating Holland's passage into the World Cup final. No wonder he's cranky.
Nicolas Vogondy is riding very smoothly on the front. He took a fine win the French time trial championship recently, so his form is good.
Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Transitions) punctured, but he got a quick change and is making his way back up to the bunch. Meanwhile the gap to the break is beginning to come down slightly.
Of course the stage started today without Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank). He came down on the cobbles yesterday and broke his collarbone. In an interview yesterday he said, "It's a pity because I seriously think Andy and myself could have both been on the podium and go for the win. Now Andy has to take over that part himself. Now Andy has to do it for me."
Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) has crashed. He's being attended to by the race doctor and is pedalling quite gingerly for now.
RadioShack are grouped at the front of the peloton now, and the gap to the leaders is coming down steadily.
Fabian Cancellara is looking pleased to be back in the maillot jaune. He can't have been too impressed with the Gazzetta dello Sport headline of "Cancellara Vroom Vroom", although they were quick to point out that "his legs are the motor."
Francis De Greef has finished in 21st place in each of the last three grand tours that he has ridden, the Giro and Vuelta in 2009 and this year's Giro. Wonder where he's aiming to finish in his debut Tour.
Txurruka has rejoined the peloton.
The break is now on the fourth category climb of the Côte de Vadencourt. Nobody here is any danger to Jerome Pineau's polka dot jersey.
The sprint for the points is not contested. Iban Mayoz leads over the top.
The peloton sweeps over the top of the climb 2:15 back. Txurruka is not looking comfortable at the rear of the bunch.
The average speed for the first hour of racing was a relatively steady 41.6km/h.
It's hard to know why RadioShack are so visible a presence at the front today. Perhaps they are trying to rebuild morale after yesterday. In any case, Saxo Bank will no doubt be pleased that so far they haven't had to control the race to defend Cancellara's lead.
Second sprint of the day for the leaders. Once again, they do not contest it. De Greef passes over the line first.
For those of you playing our Easton-Cyclingnews Wheelset a Day Giveaway during the Tour de France, here is your trivia question for the day:
Who has won the most green jerseys?
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Today's prize is an Easton EC90 Aero wheelset.
Click here for information about the prize.
The escapees are still working well together, but it's going to be next to impossible to stay clear from that far out on a day like today.
Andy Schleck is chatting with Cancellara. The loss of his brother Frank will doubtless be a blow to his morale, but perhaps he will now be freer to ride his own race. Last year, it could be argued that the younger Schleck focused a little too much on trying to get his brother onto the podium alongside him.
It's good to know that the incomparable Laurent Fignon is analysing this year's Tour for French television. You can read about how he is combining his commentary duties with his battle against cancer here. One of my earliest (and faintest, unfortunately) Tour memories was being on the roadside to see Fignon struggle in the team time trial at the 1988 Tour. He was suffering from a tapeworm malady at the time, but he still turned the pedals with a class that no-one else in his Systeme U squad could match. Everybody at Cyclingnews wishes him well.
Dmitri Champion is riding his heart out on the front of the break, trying to maintain their advantage.
RadioShack are still grouped towards the front of the peloton. Cadel Evans is well-placed and looking very comfortable in his rainbow jersey.
The break are on a long straight false flat. If they look over their shoulders, they'll be able to see the peloton in the distance. Not good for morale.
The breakaway have gone through the feed zone. The peloton are now approaching it, and they might be wondering if RadioShack are planning a surprise move through the feed.
The peloton has come through the feed without any drama, it's all still quite relaxed.
Interesting to note that the two Frenchmen in the break today are former French road race champions. Vogondy won in 2002 and 2008 (and took the time trial title this year), while Champion was, er, champion last year.
Alberto Contador seems far more relaxed at this year's Tour. In spite of the breakdown in communication with the controversial Vinokourov in the run-in yesterday, he seems to have found a calmer atmosphere in his Astana team this time around.
He's surrounded by light blue jerseys in a group behind RadioShack and Saxo Bank.
The best performance of Iñaki Isasi's career came in the 2006 Tour, when he finished 3rd on stage five behind Oscar Freire. He's a decent sprinter, but doesn't quite have the turn of pace to turn placings into victories it seems.
Carlos Sastre didn't have the best of days on the cobbles yesterday, but he didn't lose too much time either. He's currently locked in conversation with Stuart O'Grady. Meanwhile, the peloton seems content to let the break stay out there a little while longer.
The break are still grinding away on the front. The average speed for the first two hours of the stage was 41km/h, relatively sedate for a flat day like this. Expect the pace to pick up a notch or two as we get closer to Reims.
Grega Bole (Lampre-Farnese Vini) is working hard on the front now for Alessandro Petacchi, and Kanstantsin Siutsou (HTC-Columbia) is keeping an eye on things for Mark Cavendish. RadioShack are grouped behind them.
The leaders are passing through the village of Liesse-Notre-Dame.The crowds here in France aren't quite as big as in Belgium and Holland, but the public's passion for the race is still evident.
Bole is still putting in a great shift on the front of the peloton for Lampre.
The five in front are continuing to ride together, each man is taking his turn at the front. They certainly can't afford to hang about, the pace in the bunch behind is beginning to pick up a little bit.
The gap to the break is continuing to come down steadily. The pace will begin to pick up now all the way into Reims.
The leaders are now zipping through the golden fields of the Champagne region with a minute's advantage over the bunch.
Kanstantsin Siutsou (HTC-Columbia) and Grega Bole (Lampre-Farnese Vini) have done some sterling work for their sprinters today. That duo has been leading the peloton for the past 10km, with RadioShack stacked in their wheels.
Earlier at the start in Cambrai, Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel appeared slightly battered, but again in good spirits after losing the overall lead yesterday.
"Disappointment is just part of racing, too, isn't it?" he told Cyclingnews, remembering his unpleasant ride over the cobblestones of Northern France yesterday.
"I ran into a first problem when Fränk Schleck went down, as my chain was stuck in my frame and I couldn't put it back on. Then I made my way back to the group single file, and my rear wheel punctures. I change bikes, get back on again to the group that came in at 2.30 minutes, and then I puncture again. I was so angry I threw the bike away!
"Plus, I wasn't on a very good day anyway as I was still a bit tired from my effort the day before. So everything went wrong... Yesterday, for me, was harder than Paris-Roubaix, even if there was less pavé!"
Lampre are starting to push men forward to get things ready for Alessandro Petacchi. It's hard to believe that AleJet hadn't ridden the Tour (for a variety of reasons) since 2004. He'll be pleased with his work so far, though he will be hard pushed to match his achievements of 2003, when he took four stages in the opening week.
The closer we get to Reims the more the pace will rise from here on in.
Reims hosted the World Championships in 1958. Ercole Baldini dropped Louison Bobet to add a rainbow jersey to the pink one that he had already won at that year’s Giro d'Italia.
There's been virtually no wind to cause the peloton to break up and form echelons today so it's hard to see the winner coming in alone today mind.
And it's harder again to envisage that it might be Ivan Basso. He had a bad day on the cobbles yesterday and will be playing catch up in the moutains. This is first time back at the Tour since he was prevented from riding in 2006 due his involvement in Operacion Puerto.
The gap is tumbling down now with Cervelo moving up to the front of the bunch.
Cervelo have eased off a little again. They don't want to catch the breakaway too soon. The gap is back up to 0:40.
Jeremy Roy (FdJ) has punctured at the rear of the field. He'll have to fight hard to get back on at this stage.
Damiano Cunego's bad luck at this Tour is continuing. He's off the back of the bunch, chasing hard to get on. It's not clear what happened but he must have had some kind of mechanical problem. Now he's just made the coat-tails of the peloton.
Meanwhile, the break went through the last sprint of the day. De Greef from Isasi and Vogondy, but again it wasn't contested. The quintet in front are still all contributing and they have 42 seconds over the bunch.
The last 5km of today's stage are littered with roundabouts. It could well be a very technical run-in. The red kite is in the shadow of Reims' spectacular cathedral. The finishing straight of Boulevard de la Paix is 1.1km in length.
Under the 20km to go banner, the break is still pressing on and has 35 seconds over the bunch. HTC-Columbia have come to the front now.
This is a crucial stage in Mark Cavendish's Tour de France. He has a grand total of one point in the green jersey classification thus far. He needs a win today to get back into the hunt for green.
Speaking of which, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) is resplendant in green today. He's also up near the front of the pack now. The heads of state of the sprinting world are beginning to assemble for a summit meeting...
Amets Txurruka is still hanging in there at the back of the bunch, although he is suffering the effects of his earlier crash. He should make it to the finish regardless, but he'd no doubt prefer to stay in the bunch all the way to the line.
The gap is down to a shade over twenty seconds now. Sooner or later the game will be up for today's valiant breakaways. They've lit up an otherwise calm stage.
A couple of twists and turns to negotiate for the breakaway riders, as the peloton stretches out behind them.
The white jerseys of HTC-Columbia and Cervelo are massed at the front of the peloton now. The breakaways are still driving hard. They don't have much of an advantage to play around with.
Dmitri Champion is pressing hard on the front once again. It's hard to single one of the breakaways out over the other today, however, all five have done their bit. Shame it won't be enough.
De Greef's huge frame is rocking with the effort now. The five in front are still fighting for the lives, but the bunch is almost up to them. 15 seconds the gap.
The peloton is stalking the breakaway, but Champion, De Greef and co. are still holding their slim advantage.
The bunch is spread across the road a little now. Neither HTC-Columbia nor Cervelo want to commit to starting their trains in earnest yet it seems.
Through the first of the treacherous roundabouts. Cervelo driving on front of pack, the gap is down to 6 seconds
The pursuit behind still hasn't been organised fully, but surely the breakaways can't survive much longer as the peloton splits around a roundabout.
De Greef has been dropped by the breakaway and caught by the pack.
The breakaway is caught. Iban Mayoz and Vogondy try to go again, but it's too late.
HTC-Columbia stayed out of trouble on the first roundabouts. Now they're coming to the front.
Into the home straight after the last right hand bend. All together.
Hondo goes to the front under the red kite.
Hondo goes to the front under the red kite.
Cervelo leading it out for Hushovd.
Petacchi goes first!
Petacchi holds on to take the win, a great victory for the Italian. He pipped Julian Dean and Edvald Boassan Hagen to the line.
Cavendish didn't have the legs in the finale. He sat up at the end. Julian Dean was closing fast on Petacchi at the finish. Robbie McEwen and Robbie Hunter were 4th and 5th.
No change to the overall classification.
Fabian Cancellara hold on to yellow, 23 seconds clear of Geraint Thomas and 39 ahead of Cadel Evans.
Alessandro Petacchi will have moved up the green jersey rankings with that victory.
1 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 3:34:55
2 Julian Dean (NZl) Garmin - Transitions
3 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team
4 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Team Katusha
5 Robert Hunter (RSA) Garmin - Transitions
6 Sébastien Turgot (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom
7 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
8 Daniel Oss (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo
9 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team
10 Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) Rabobank
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank 18:28:55
2 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:00:23
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:00:39
4 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Transitions 0:00:46
5 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step 0:01:01
6 Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 0:01:09
7 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team 0:01:19
8 Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 0:01:31
9 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana 0:01:40
10 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:01:42
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) finished in 23rd, in spite of his broken wrist.
That's all for the live report for today, thanks for joining us. A great win for Alessandro Petacchi, who has shown that his win on Sunday was not by chance.
Check out the full stage report later on, with in-depth analysis, full results and extensive pictures from today's stage/
We'll be back live tomorrow for stage five from Eperanay-Montargis. It should be another day for the sprinters.