Markus Fothen handed Gerolsteiner another ProTour win by escaping late in the race with Caisse d'Epargne's Francisco Perez, and then out-sprinting his companion to take the stage. The win was far from simple, as the pair were holding a slim lead of just a few seconds in the final kilometre, but the peloton was weakened by the four categorized mountains of the stage, and could not close the gap on the run-in to the line.
Perez started the sprint from 250 metres, and Fothen was easily able to get over the top of the Spaniard. Caisse d'Epargne's Joaquim Rodriguez won the field sprint just behind his teammate Perez. Paolo Savoldelli finished comfortably in the front group and retaining his leader's jersey with a 17th place finish.
"The team's tactics were, of course, to control the race, and that it was what we did," the Astana rider said. "Eddy Mazzoleni did most of the work on the climbs. In the last 3 km, Kacheshkin took over. I was very cold. We are very happy to have kept this jersey."
The 25-year-old Fothen said, "I knew this finale from the last Tour de Suisse, and knew at which point I had to attack. I wanted to ride one stage here really well. With the win, that turned out even better than planned. It's great that my first form check worked out." Fothen moved up to third overall.
How it unfolded
The peloton left in a light rain and cool temperatures, and missing one man: Simon Gerrans (AG2R) who had crashed in the prologue. Only 18 km in to the stage, Chris Sorensen (Team CSC), Eros Capecchi (Liguigas), Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricol) and Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Telecom) broke away, and rapidly built up a lead over the course which featured two each of category 1 and category 2 climbs. They were eventually joined by Raffaele Ferrara (LPR) and Mauro Facci (Quick Step).
The cooler temperatures (10°) forced the riders to wear arm and leg warmers, as well as the occasional jacket - unusual sights in what had been to date a hot, dry spring. A light rain fell on the riders for much of the day as they tackled the hilly parcours.
As the escapees built up their lead to a maximum of six minutes, the Astana team of GC leader Paolo Savoldelli kept the gap in check before other teams started to contribute to the chase.
As the riders went past the finish line in La Chaux de Fonds for the first time and headed out onto a 50 km loop with the final two climbs, the escape group's lead had dropped to three and a half minutes, with Bodrogi being the first to fall out of the group.
The charging peloton was led by the turquoise Astana train, with even Savoldelli's yellow leader's jersey covered by a turquoise vest.
On the descent of the Vue-des-Alpes, Brochard and Capecchi took off and left the remnants of the escape group behind. This 'odd couple' functioned well despite the generation gap: Brochard is 39 years old, and the Italian is only 20. Their lead continued to drop, however, due to Astana's relentless pressure. The peloton suffered as well, and continued to get smaller as it drove up La Tourne, with Robbie McEwen being the most notable rider unable to keep up the pace.
The lead for the two in front dropped dramatically on the last climb, with the peloton passing the peak only 1.05 minutes later. By this time, however, Savoldelli had only two helpers at his side. As the lead continued to melt in the continuing rain, there were numerous attacks out of the field, but the peloton wasn't willing to let anyone get away. Astana no longer had enough riders to control the escapes, and a disorganized group finally swept by Brochard and Capecchi with 15 km to go.
Sandy Casar sprinted from behind a small group to take the last intermediate sprint with 12 km to go, and no sooner was this group re-integrated into the peloton than the next break occurred. Francisco Perez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Wim Van Huffel (Predictor) broke clear, but the Spaniard was seen to gesture angrily when Van Huffel wouldn't share the lead work. Perez attacked and dropped Van Huffel, leaving the Belgian no choice but to return to the peloton.
Liquigas finally took charge of the ever-smaller peloton, but Perez' lead slowly built up to 18 seconds as there was no serious chase.
As the race entered the final kilometres, Fothen made his move, combining his strong attack with the wind protection provided by a motorcycle, he caught Perez quickly near the 5 km to go mark. Behind them, the peloton was breaking apart from the high speed, and it was every man for himself. The yellow jersey appeared again at the head of the group, now without his turquoise-clad comrades in the rain which had started again.
Fothen and Perez worked together strongly for several kilometres, and as they neared the 1km to go mark, the peloton was hot on their heels. The two leaders kept looking back nervously as they protected their narrow lead, aided briefly by a tight hairpin turn. As they headed down a long straightaway for the finish line, the pack was closing in on them, but Fothen didn't let the pressure bother him. He let Perez panic first, and then came from behind to take the win ahead of the charging peloton which followed them over the finish only fractions of a second later.
The chasing peloton of some 80 riders was given the same time as the winner. Another group came in at 3.33, while the grupetto arrived 13.26 later. McEwen continued his leisurely pace and came in at 14.15.
Stage two has the usual innumerable ups and downs, but has only two ranked climbs, one each Cat. 1 and Cat. 3. It runs 166.9 km from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Lucens.
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