Casar holds out chasers in Angoulême's dog day afternoon

Contador loses three seconds to Evans in his first maillot jaune day

Sandy Casar handed Française Des Jeux its premier win of the 2007 Tour de France in a dog-eat-dog day to Angoulême that was marked by an escape of four. The 28 year-old Frenchman took his first win in two years and his first in the Tour by going free in an escape at kilometre 23 after being knocked off his bike due to a (yet another) dog crossing the road. With his right buttock bruised and bleeding through torn shorts, he remarkably held off his fellow break-away companions - Axel Merckx (T-Mobile), Laurent Lefèvere (Bouygues Telecom) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) - in a thrilling finale down Avenue Jean Mermoz.

Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) spent his first full day in the leader's maillot jaune at a relaxed pace as the GC-favourites concentrated on tomorrow's race-deciding time trial. The peloton was led home by the sprint of maillot vert Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) but the 24 year-old Spaniard was caught off guard and could not close a three second gap that opened behind the sprint group including Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto).

"I waited for the last metres and when the sprint started at 200 metres, I attacked and launched my sprint," noted Casar at the finish. "I wanted this badly; it helped me and it has also helped the fans that have supported me."

Bad luck did not rule the day of Casar but it did affect his chances of victory when early on in the race a brown dog darted out of the left-hand side of the road to ram into his bike and tossed the Frenchman on the road. He collected himself and rejoined the escape with compatriot Lefèvere and two men who were riding their last Tour; Merckx and Boogerd, with the former going for his first ever Tour stage win in 13 years as a professional.

"I had crashed around kilometre 20 or 30 on the downhill. ... We were surprised when the dog crossed the road," continued Casar. He was able to get up and continue despite pains and torn shorts; the condition of the brown dog who was tossed about is unknown. "My legs were very good; I only had back aches, also my arms and my backside hurt."

The group enjoyed a healthy gap of 17 minutes at one point as they made their way over the categorized climbs that dotted the early part of the parcours out of Cahors. The gap was stabilized and it was controlled by Discovery and then Euskaltel while the four men humped their way through the Périgord Blanc and into the Charente department, concentrating on the finish.

The peace-accord was broken by 35 year-old Dutchman Boogerd with a sortie at kilometre 9.7 to the finish. Lefèvere dug deep, riding into the sunrays to nail back the former winner of Amstel Gold. They re-grouped but the Frenchman returned the favour with an acceleration at 6.2 kilometres to go, right after the Les Effamiers Roundabout. This time it was Boogerd doing the chasing with Merckx contributing slightly to the chase. Casar, always in-tow, seemed to be saving himself to avoid the mishap of Marseille where he missed the win by 10 centimetres to Vasseur.

After the right-turn at four kilometres, it was Boogerd's turn again. He fired a missile down the right side of the road that Lefèvere closed once more. Merckx gave it a go when he went on a slow called-in attack at 3.2 kilometres to go. It was covered by Lefèvere and opened the door for Casar to make his bid.

Casar used a traffic island to perfection when he shot on the left while the trio dodged right at 2.8 kilometres to go. Merckx was first to react and then Boogerd 200 metres later. Casar was committed and he stayed clear but behind him, Boogerd was burying his chances of a stage victory in an effort to close the gap.

After five hours and 12 minutes of racing, Casar approached the line, followed by Boogerd, Merckx and Lefèvere. They were steaming along the left side of the final stretch with the sun coming down on their left. The trio closed to Casar but just could not get in his slipstream - the Frenchman never gave up putting pressure on the pedals. Casar drew his strength from his Marseille near-miss and the fact that he was given a second chance after a run-in with the dog. He kept checking over his right and then he dug deepest, twisted back the throttle one more time at 200 metres remaining.

Merckx reacted first to close the gap. The 34 year-old Belgian looked to be closing in on his first Tour de France win in his last season as a pro but he was unsuccessful. He finished second over Lefèvere and Boogerd.

"I am not a sprinter," Merckx laboured an obvious point. "And second is okay because, if I can be honest, Casar was the best. ... This morning I realized it was my last chance when I rode to the start. I am not disappointed... It was a nice day."

"I am disappointed because I had the legs to win today," Boogerd added. "I just went for the victory, nothing else, not for the classification. ... I would have preferred a harder race."

Eight minutes later Tom Boonen charged down the home straight to nab more points in his quest to win the maillot vert of best sprinter in Paris. He now leads by 24 points over Robert Hunter. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) edged his way up in the sprint to open a three-second gap on Contador. The Aussie will face tomorrow's 55.5 Tour-deciding time trial with 1'50" to close on Contador if he wants the Tour de France victory.

"Now I want to go to the hotel as soon as possible to relax and to have dinner," Contador stated. "I will need to focus. Maybe I will watch a movie with my teammate Noval. Tomorrow morning we will go and preview the time trial. [The maillot jaune] is very good to have and I hope to keep it. Tomorrow will be the most difficult day of my sporting career and it will change my life."

How it unfolded

141 riders lined out for the 18th stage of this year's Tour and coming as it did one day before the crucial time trial, it was certain that the GC contenders would be saving their energies. The rouleurs in the bunch would however recognise this as probably their last opportunity, given that Sunday's final stage almost always ends in a bunch gallop.

For those that wanted to attack, the start of the stage was lumpy enough to facilitate breakaway groups. There were a total of three category four climbs in the first 39.5 kilometres, namely the Côte de Salvezou (km 15), the Côte de Lavercantière (km 24) and the Côte de Saint-Martial-de-Nabirat (km 39.5) and then, after the intermediate sprint at Saint-Cyprien (km 66), one more at the Côte de Saint-Cyprien (km 70.5). The 211 kilometre stage also featured another bonus sprint 19 kilomeres from the line in Angoulême.

There were a number of short-lived attacks in the first twenty minutes or so of racing. Then, on the first climb, Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) and Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) jumped clear, but Frederik Willems (Liquigas) bridged and sprinted over the top ahead of the two of them, Pineau taking second. The move was brought back over the summit and almost straight away Casar and Willems went clear once more with Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank).

The latter two led over the top of the Côte de Lavercantière in that order, with Casar taking third. Willems was next over the line while lone chaser Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) was 55" back at the summit. He was 1'05" down after 25 kilometres of racing and the peloton was 2'25" in arrears.

Two kilometres later a dog walked onto the course and Casar hit it, coming down heavily. Willems also fell hard, while the other two were unaffected. Casar had however a bit of luck after that misfortune, as he was able to join up with Merckx and chase Lefèvre and Boogerd. The two leaders decided to wait for Merckx and Casar and the four were united at the 36 kilometre point.

Merckx led Lefèvre and Boogerd over the line at the intermediate sprint at Saint Cyprien and then, 4.5 kilometres later, Boogerd beat Casar and Lefèvre to the top of the climb of the same name. At this point the peloton was a massive 12'25" back and clearly fading quickly out of the picture for the stage win.

The four leaders were working well together and with a Discovery Channel-led peloton content to give them some space, the gap continued to grow. It was up to 14'11" by the time the bunch rolled through the feedzone, approximately 87 kilometres from the start and 124 clicks from the finish, then reached its maximum of 17'30" with 51 kilometres to go.

Boogerd had started the stage 14'08" behind Mikel Astarloza and in order to protect his tenth place overall, the Euskaltel Euskadi team started riding hard inside the final hour of racing. Their efforts meant that with 25 kilometres to go, the gap had dropped to 12'05".

Casar led Merckx and Boogerd over the sprint line in Dignac, 19 kilometres from the finish. With 15 kilometres remaining the quartet's advantage was 10'15''. It was clear that one of them would take the stage; Boogerd started the hostilities when he jumped with ten kilometres to go.

Lefèvre was next to try with just over six kilometres remaining. He was brought back by Boogerd and Merckx, while Casar sat on. Boogert then tried again with three and a half kilometres left but Lefèvre got him back. Merckx then had a go soon after but was instantly closed down by the Frenchman.

An injured Casar had been playing things quiet until this point and appeared to be the weakest of the four. However this illusion was shattered when he took off shortly after the three kilometre to go mark, intelligently going on the left hand side of the road while the others were stuck on the far side of a traffic island and couldn't take his wheel.

Boogerd was determined and led the chase, with Lefèvre and Merckx dangling a few bike lengths off his back wheel. They finally got Casar back just inside the final kilometre and while he was left on the front, their presumption that he would have nothing left cost them dearly.

The four played it cagily until about 250 metres to go, moving at perhaps 30 kilometres per hour. Casar had a couple of bike lengths lead on the three others, who seemed more focussed on watching each other. Boogerd was closest to him but when Casar took the initiative and jumped hard, the Dutchman didn't have the gas to close him down.

The Française des Jeux rider was clearly the strongest between there and the line and took the sprint, finishing a second clear, while Merckx inched by Lefèvre for second. Boogerd had to be content with fourth and, 8'34" after Casar galloped home, maillot vert Boonen took the peloton sprint for fifth ahead of Hunter and Zabel.

Of the GC contenders, Evans was closest to the head of the bunch and took 14th on the stage. The significance of this was that a split in the peloton meant that Alberto Contador and his Discovery Channel team-mate Levi Leipheimer, first and third overall, lost three seconds to those ahead.

In terms of the overall standings, this gap means that Evans will start tomorrow's time trial 1'50" behind the maillot jaune, and 59" ahead of Leipheimer. Boogerd, meanwhile, is up to 13th overall, 19'10" back in what is his final Tour de France.

He spent several days sacrificing himself for Michael Rasmussen and must at this stage regret missing out on the chance to take what would have been the third top ten GC finish of his career. The Dutchman was fifth in 1998 and 10th in 2001, and also won stages in 1996 and 2002.

Stage 19 - Saturday, July 28: Cognac - Angoulême, 55.5km

The penultimate stage of the 2007 Tour de France sees the top three riders separated by 2'49" seconds. Race leader Alberto Contador has a buffer of 1'50" over Cadel Evans and while he has been riding very strongly in this race, the flat parcours and the fact that Evans has beaten him several times in past time trials means that there is still a possibility that the Australian could win. Much will depend on each rider's condition; a good day could secure yellow, a bad day could lose it. As for Leipheimer, he is almost certainly too far back, but then again, nothing is certain in this soap opera Tour de France.

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