Robbie rocks to three

Aussies within striking distance of green

Two-time Tour de France points champion Robbie McEwen thundered to an emotional third stage win in Montpellier today, as a unified Davitamon-Lotto team chased down what looked like a winning breakaway inside the final kilometre. With he and second-placed Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) the significant beneficiaries, the two Australians are now well within striking distance of the maillot vert, precariously balanced on Thor Hushovd's shoulders.

"This really isn't a McEwen victory, it's a Davitamon-Lotto victory!" said a choked up McEwen at the finish line. "They worked so hard getting back a nine-minute break after the high mountain stages and in a very difficult overall Tour de France. Unbelievable!

"I really didn't believe we would have a mass sprint today - I just didn't believe it would happen," he said to Cyclingnews. "I knew my guys were very, very tired. You can't motivate them to do that; the motivation comes from within those guys, and that's their strong point. Now there are only eight points separating me from O'Grady, but I'm still 22 points away from Hushovd. I don't know about the green jersey, but never say never!"

The 33 year-old Queenslander was delivered so far to the line by Fred Rodriguez, in fact, that McEwen stopped pedaling for a split second to try and give his last lead-out man the victory. But as he did in similar fashion at this year's Giro d'Italia with Henk Vogels, the move didn't quite work out.

"I was a few metres out from the line and I wanted to see if anybody was on my wheel, because I was actually going to let Freddy cross the line first," he said. "Then I saw there was somebody there, so I had to do two more pedals... and there was nobody coming past me."

The day's action was dominated by a early breakaway group of five riders, instigated by Carlos Da Cruz (Francaise des Jeux) and joined by Chris Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Ludovic Turpin (Ag2R-Prévoyance) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) shortly thereafter. As McEwen's team chipped away at their advantage inside the closing kilometres, Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) bridged the gap, attacked, and took Horner for company. But alas, the stage victory wasn't to be theirs, and it was cruelly closed just past the flamme rouge, leaving the pair with nothing but sore legs.

With Horner reasonably well-placed on the overall classification, the 33 year-old American explained his motives after the stage: "I was the Saunier Duval rider there and I saw Flecha go, and you know if you see Flecha go, you've got to cover it. Our guys had covered all the moves before I covered that one, so it was not necessarily my turn, but it just needed to be done and I was in the move, so what are you going to do?" he laughed.

"We both hesitated a little bit, and I needed him to lead it out to beat him," Horner said on his tactics in the finale. "I just didn't have the fresh legs from leading out from a k [to go]. He [Chavanel] wanted me to pull through at 800, 700 metres, and I knew if I pulled through, I would have to lead it out from there, so it wasn't an option for me to lead it out for the win."

Said Bouygues' Thomas Voeckler, who was also part of the move: "When we jumped after 15 kilometres I wasn't sure if this break would get through, but then when we gained a lot of time; yes, I believed in our chances. But when Lampre started riding behind as well, our morale went down, of course... I didn't think about the difficult stage yesterday, because if you always think about tomorrow you'll never take your chances. Anyway, I'll finish in the gruppetto again tomorrow, as I've taken the habit of doing so at this Tour."

What follows tomorrow is two ugly, back-to-back days in Pyrenées, and with the mercury soaring skywards, the question on everyone's lips is will Armstrong suffer a setback à la the Cap'Découverte time trial in 2003? "No doubt that impression came about in 2003 because we did have that incredibly hot summer, but I'm not going to say that's not true," admitted the six-time Tour winner.

"I think everybody's performance suffers in the heat, but some riders of course handle it better than others. As soon as you get behind on hydration, your performance starts to evaporate. Yeah, it makes me worried, so I have to be extra careful.

"Regardless of what happens tomorrow or in the next days, we've still got the advantage of knowing there's a long time trial right at the end. Of course, we'll try to mark all the riders - Rasmussen, Basso, the T-Mobile riders - but we have also be slightly conservative and not follow just one guy."

How it unfolded

Stage 13 started in the first-time stage town of Miramas just north of the Berre de l'Etaing west of Marseilles and headed west to Montpellier, where Rolf Sörensen took a stage win 11 years ago. After the Alps, Stage 13 was a classic transitional stage after the Alps and before the Pyrenees, where a break would try to hold off the sprinters. Stage 13 started at 13:30 and it was a hot day in the little town near the mouth of the Rhone River, with a slight headwind from the west. The Tour de France has turned the corner and is now headed due west towards the Pyrenees.

After some early attacks, a group of five got away after 15km in Mouries and headed to the first and only climb of the day. In the group was Carlos Da Cruz (Francaise des Jeux), Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Ludovic Turpin (Ag2R-Prévoyance) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo). Voeckler took the first intermediate sprint in Maussane-Les-Alpilles, then Horner took the Cat 4. KOM on Col de la Vayède atop the rocky white ridge of Les Alpilles.

The peloton was tired and as it was a recovery day, no one was really interested in chasing the lead quintet down. Stage 13 headed northwest through Tarascon after 40km, crossing the Rhone River and gaining 5'00 on the peloton. Best placed in the break was Chris Horner, who at 29th on GC was 15'22 behind Armstrong and little threat to the maillot jaune. Through the vineyards of the Pays du Gard, just west of Beaucaire, Discovery Channel was riding tempo but the lead had grown to eight minutes.

Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne) tearfully abandoned the 92nd Tour de France at the feed zone in Pont des Charettes (Uzes) with continual knee pain from a crash where he banged his knee hard on his handlebars. Sitting fifth in GC, Valverde was just 3'16 behind maillot jaune Armstrong and may have been a threat to the American in the Pyrenees. Right after lunch, Robbie McEwen sicced the Davitamon-Lotto dogs on the break, making his boys ride behind the quintet when the lead was 9'00 after 76km. The DVL machine began to close the gap on Horner's break and with 67km to go, the gap had dropped to just under 4'00 as Lampre-Cafitta had joined the chase.

With 30km to race, the Davitamon-Lottos had brought the break back to 1'56 in Le Triadou, but the hard work on a hot day had began to take its toll on McEwen's team. DaCruz made an attack with 22km to go, but Horner covered his move. On the run-in into Montpellier, Knaven (Quick.Step) counterattacked from the peloton with 22km to go and came back after 4km of liberty, but this move discombobulated the Davitamon-Lotto chase. Discovery Channel took up the chase, but not at the same all-out pace as before as the break's lead was now under 0'30.

Chavanel (Cofidis) was next to counterattack and because the breakaway was so close, he got across. After a short hesitation, Chavanel went again, and only Horner could get across to the Frenchman with a superb effort, while the rest of the break was about to be sucked up by the Discovery Channel led chase. 10 seconds behind the lead duo, Commesso tried to bridge with Grivko. They got up to the remainder of the break - Da Cruz, Flecha, Turpin and Voeckler - but that's as far as they got. With 7km to go on the twisty streets of Montpellier, Horner and Chavanel had eked out a 0'25 lead, with Discovery Channel chasing, but not really chasing. Gerolsteiner and Liquigas were chasing too - really. With 5km left, the gap was 0'18.

Chavanel was doing anything and everything he could to drop the tenacious American, but it was nothing doing as the Saunier Duval Prodir rider pedaled away. With 2km to go, Discovery Channel peeled off and McEwen's Davitamon-Lotto boys hit the front again. Horner and Chavanel were indecisive as they came under the 1km kite with 0'08. Fast Freddy Rodriguez lived up to his nickname today as he hit full gas with 500m to go and swept around the last bend with McEwen on his wheel, followed by the rest of the peloton. Horner and Chavanel's dream ended with 200m. to go. Friday's Stage 13 proved unlucky for the lead duo as hitting 73km/hr escape velocity in the final rush, McEwen blasted to his 3rd stage win at this year's Tour de France and his 8th career stage win ahead of fellow Aussie Stuart O'Grady and his teammate Rodriguez in third, while Horner held on for 10th.

For the first time since 1998, the transitional stage between the mountains came down to a sprint, a fact that clearly pleased Davitamon-Lotto's Henrik Redant, saying post race, "Our team was a team of champions today...they worked so hard and it was a fabulous effort for everyone."

With Boonen out of the Tour, the race for the maillot vert looks to be a three-way battle between current MV Hushovd (CA) and the two tough Aussies, O'Grady and McEwen. The giant Viking now has 164 points, with O'Grady at 150 and McEwen moving closer at 142 after his win today. "I took back a couple of more points, but I'm still a long way behind," McEwen told SBS TV's Mike Tomalaris at the finish. "I said before, I'm more interested in winning stages and I'm over the moon about number three. Like I said, more than anything, I'm just so happy for my teammates. What they did out there today was self torture."

With the abandon of Valverde, Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel teammate Yaro Popovych has taken over the maillot blanc of Best Young Rider, 0'07 over Kashechkin (CA). Going into the Pyrenees tomorrow, maillot jaune Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) is just eight stages away from winning his 7th straight Tour de France. Yesterday's abandon of his teammate Triki Beltran will put more pressure on Armstrong's Discovery squad to defend his MJ, as the experienced Spaniard is a pure climber and always plays an important role in the Pyrenees for Armstrong. Just 0'38 behind Armstrong, Rabobank's maillot à pois Rasmussen has been telling Italian TV that he plans to attack Armstrong in the Pyrenees.

Stage 14 - Saturday, July 16: Agde-Ax-3 Domaines (Mountaintop stage finish), 220.5km

Starting on the Mediterranean coast, Phase Three of the 2005 Tour commences with this first stage into the eastern Pyrenees, traversing four small climbs until hitting the penultimate ascent of the steep Hors Categorie Port-de-Pailhères after 175km, then up the final 9km ascent to Ax-3 Domaines.

Stage 14 rated climbs:

Col de Villerouge (Cat. 4, 90.5km)
Col de Bedos (Cat. 4, 98.5km)
Col des Fourches (Cat. 4, 104km)
Col du Paradis (Cat. 3, 115.5km)
Port-de-Pailhères (Hors Categorie, 190.5km, 2001m, 15.2km climb at 8% grade)
Ax-3 Domaines (Cat. 1, 220km, 1372m, 9.1km climb at 7.3% grade)

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