Boonen bis in Tours; Robbie relegated for argy-bargy

Zabriskie maintains maillot jaune, Tuesday team time test critical

Avenue de Grammont is the classic finishing straight of the sprinters' classic Paris-Tours and today's Stage 3 finish at the 92nd Tour De France had plenty of Fourth of July fireworks. But all that happened behind maillot vert Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), who blasted through a gap with 200m to go to go two out of three at this year's Tour De France. Boonen explained, "A sprint on the Tour is a sprint with 200 riders and that's always scary. Today's finish was also a long, large straight and I started my sprint with Robbie. Then I saw behind my shoulder that there was a bit of a "casino" [Italian for mess - ed.]... [laughs] - but I won and that's important."

After an argy-bargy with Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) in the last 100m, Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) was relegated by the Jury of Commissaires to last place in the peloton and fined 200 Swiss Francs for an irregular sprint. Runner up to Boonen yesterday, McEwen has been frustrated so far this Tour De France. "I had good legs, but I went too late...I was boxed in on the left and the right. Yesterday I went too early and today I was too late."

Although both have mellowed in recent years, there's been no love lost between McEwen and O'Grady over the years, and today's incident may have re-opened old wounds between them. O'Grady was furious post-stage, telling Cyclingnews, "That was over the top! Sure, there's argy-bargy in the sprints but today was too much."

O'Grady and McEwen both thought they had a shot at Boonen and the Cofidis man explained, "It was going good for 150m, I came off Hushovd's wheel and went right. I saw Boonen go and tried to get his wheel, but suddenly I had Robbie's head in my face."

McEwen's team director Marc Sergeant claimed to the race officials that "O'Grady put his elbow in front of Robbie first," but they weren't buying it, and relegated the Australian champ to last place.

Gerolsteiner's "Paco" Wrolich, who is usually the lead-out man for Robert "Frösi" Förster was a superb second today and said, "We were super positioned, it couldn't have been better, but the Australians are really going for it...Frösi lacked that final touch today (6th), but if he stays on my wheel he can beat Boonen."

After his second day wearing the coveted yellow tunic, CSC's Dave Zabriskie seems to be getting used to his new duds. Zabriskie told French TV post race, "I'm feeling more relaxed today, but I'm not getting used to wearing the maillot jaune. It would be really nice to keep (maillot jaune) after the team time trial, but you never know what can happen. I'm looking forward to it and the entire team is good at that event. I'll give it 100 percent."

Early in the day, the irrepressible Dave Z was seen chatting with Lance Armstrong at the beginning of the stage and when asked about their chat, Zabriskie explained that "Oh, that was just a little bit of ha-ha. We just talked about stuff; (Lance) asked if he could have a turn with (maillot jaune) and I said 'sure why not?'"

Dave Z's CSC teammate Jens Voigt, who will be a major motor in tomorrow's team time trial explained his vision for the 67.5km stage Tuesday. "I'm not going to say that we want to finish 8th or something like that", said Voigt to German TV. "I think we are amongst the favourites and it's not arrogant to say it." As far as defending CSC's maillot jaune, Voigt explained that "If I was captain, I'd never let it go. But we'll see what Bjarne has in mind. It depends on what happens tomorrow - maybe we don't have to think about this anymore if we lose the jersey, but if we still have it tomorrow evening, I could imagine that because we've already had a stage win, the yellow for three days...and we do have a higher goal where we want to put somebody up on the podium in Paris, so we might have to say 'OK, we can't have everything, so we need to make little sacrifices."

CSC team boss Bjarne Riis echoed Voigt sentiments on the team time trial, saying in his usually laconic style, "I think we'll ride fast tomorrow. It's our goal to win this time trial."

As for the keeping Zabriskie's maillot jaune, Riis continued, "We won't give it away for free but maybe we'll have to. Ivan Basso proved at the Giro that he was the strongest rider there, had it not been for his illness. I think he will be great at the Tour too. Lance is very strong, that's no secret. We will have to attack him to win - or at least try - and we will do just that."

Stage 3 isn't exactly Lance Armstrong's favourite type of stage. He started the day without signing in and ended up with a 100 Swiss Franc fine when the Jury of Commissaires caught up with him. The six-time Tour champ, who is one step closer to knocking on seven's door, seemed relieved to get the stage over with today. "I was glad nobody fell in front of me in the finale...then there was just 3k straight in to the finish."

Armstrong is looking ahead to tomorrow's Stage 4 67.5km Tours-Blois team time trial, saying, "It's an important day for us...(Discovery Channel) is up against a tough team (CSC) and it's important for us to ride steady and keep the team together as long as possible."

Armstrong admitted that he hopes to be clad in the maillot jaune tomorrow, saying "I still cherish the maillot jaune and you better believe I'll be pedaling hard tomorrow. A good performance is good for team morale too, to show how strong we are. But even if we don't win, I know I just have to be patient. I have good legs and now have to wait for the hard moments."

How it unfolded

It was a little more special of a day for American maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie today, as the Salt Lake City native got to spend the Fourth of July in the tiny French country hamlet of La Châtaigneraie. Well part of it anyway, as Dave Z and his CSC team had a race to ride, along with 180 riders, a 212.5km Tour De France stage that headed north to Cholet, then northeast lower Loire Valley, across rolling green countryside past beautiful chateaux like Chinon and Azay-le-Rideau to finish on Avenue Grammont in Tours, where the Paris-Tours classic finishes every October.

First attacker was Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) at km 4 and he quickly got 0'50 but when mullet-man Brochard (Bouygues) and his teammate Eisel gave chase, this woke the peloton up and Gilbert was reeled back in after 15km. On the first GPM of the day, the Côte de Pouzauges at km 22 (1.2 km climb / 4.8% grade), Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) took the points ahead of maillot a pois Voeckler (Bouygues) and Brochard (Bouygues).

10km later, old fox Erik Dekker (Rabobank) attacked before the first intermediate sprint in Saint-Michel-Mont-Mercure and was quickly joined by Nicolas Portal (AG2R) and Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier). Dekker took the points ahead of Bertogliati and Portal and after a halfhearted chase, the CSC team took over the tempo and the front trio tried to make their escape last until Tours.

At le Puy du Fou after 38km, where Lance Armstrong took his first Tour De France maillot jaune six years and one day ago, the break had 2'30 with maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie's Team CSC riding tempo up front. Bertogliati was best placed GC rider (69th at 2'13), while Dekker was at 2'19 (78th) and Portal at 2'53 (139th) and thus became maillot jaune virtuel. 42.6km was raced in first hour as Stage 3 headed north for Cholet. The roads may have looked familiar to Stuart O'Grady, where he wore his maillot jaune in 1998, or Floyd Landis, who won the local Cholet-Pays de Loire race here when he rode for Mercury.

At the second intermediate sprint in Coron (km 79), Portal took the points, followed by Bertogliati and Dekker, with the gap to the peloton at 4'20. After Cholet, Stage 3 headed west and the strong tailwind kicked in. CSC now had help in the chase from Davitamon-Lotto and Quick.Step, as the pace had increased to 44 km/h for the first two hours.

At the feed zone in Le-Coq Hardi after 93km, the break's lead was up to five minutes and after the peloton had lunch, they settled in to chop down the lead of the escapees, and 5km later, the lead had dropped more than a minute. Quick.Step's big rouleur Kevin Hulsmans was now pounding on the front of the peloton with Davitamon-Lotto just behind; both sprinters teams riding respectively for maillot vert Boonen and McEwen. In Les Trois Moutiers (km 137) Bertogliati took the sprint from Dekker and Portal with the gap at 2'30 and dropping fast.

On the first of the two Cat. 4 climbs on the run-in, the Côte de Chinon after 161.5km, Erik Dekker took the six points and on the Côte de la Taconnière 18km later, the flying Dutchman grabbed another 3 points and took the maillot a pois lead from Voeckler. The peloton was at 1'20 and could smell blood now, as a Crédit Agricole rider joined the chase the small bourg of Cheille with 32 km to go. 15km later, the gap was down to 0'40, and when Dekker accelerated, only Portal followed, as Bertogliati decided to cut his losses, sat up, and was absorbed by the peloton as the finale through the twisting streets and HLM's of Joue'-les-Tours approached.

Dekker and Portal were still pounding hard, as Quick.Step had the peloton stretched out in one long line at over 50km/h. As the dynamic duo made the lefthand turn onto the N10 and began the looping descent into the final kilometres, the lead was only 0'06 ahead of the peloton. Down the hill, through the final roundabout and under the 3km to go banner, Dekker and Portal tried to hold on, but as the duo approached the bridge across the Cher River and entered Tours, Fabian Cancellara exploded off the front and Dekker and Portal were caught after 177km of liberty. Ag2r's Nico Portal said after the stage, "It was good to be in the breakaway today...but in the end, when the peloton was getting closer, I tried to be optimistic, but I knew we were going to get caught."

Clad in his maillot blanc of Best Young Rider, Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) rode flat out with 1.5km to go on the Avenue de Grammont, but a vigilant Francaise des Jeux train pulled back his 50m lead quickly. Under the flamme rouge with 1km to go, Credit Agricole started to wind it up for Hushovd as Kirsipuu hit the front, then Liquigas-Bianchi's Magnus Bäckstedt was there for Pagliarini. Fred Rodriguez made his final burst to set up McEwen, but the Aussie champ was boxed in, and when Boonen made his winning move up the middle of Avenue de Grammont, he couldn't get out of the box and ended up as last man.

Stage 4 - July 5: Tours-Blois TTT, 67.5km

Starting Tuesday afternoon in the center of Tours, Stage 4's TTT heads due east along the Loire River with a twisting, up and down profile to finish in Blois. As always, there will be a west wind blowing up the Loire River valley, a tailwind that should increase as the afternoon continues. The main battle here will between the CSC team of maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie and Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel squad, with even money on both teams to ride a close race. ProTour TTT winners Gerolsteiner will be looking to keep leader Levi Leipheimer close, while ProTour team leaders Phonak want to position Floyd Landis well. Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile squad will have a lot of pressure to not lose more time to Armstrong and his other rivals.

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