Stage 4: Villers-Cotterêts - Joigny
Day's escape crushed in sight of Gondi Chateau
Thor Hushovd hit his opponents with a hard reminder that he is a sprinter to reckon with by taking victory at the end of 193 kilometres into Joigny. The 29 year-old Norwegian benefited from the work of teammate Julien Dean and went long to overtake Robert Hunter (Barloworld) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank).
"It was very fast with big roads at the end," noted Hushovd at the end of the day.
The sprinters' teams had sucked in the escape of Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Sébastien Chavanel (Française Des Jeux) and Christian Knees (Milram) that had been clear since 25 kilometres into the day. The race-conclusion saw Sprick bolting free at eight kilometres to go as the peloton was only 30" back. The Frenchman was clawed back 4.8 kilometres from the finish and the way was clear for a sprint-fest.
"My team did a lot of work for me with riders such as Sébastien Hinault and William Bonnet helping a lot," Hushovd continued. Dean was the star domestique when he personally escorted me in the crucial closing metres. "I trusted Julian Dean, I stayed on his wheel and he started the sprint very strongly with about 450 metres to go. He led me out and then I jumped with about 200 metres to go."
Hushovd rode the New Zealand express through the gentle right-hand bend and then launched off to the lead-out man's left. Hushovd led from what appeared to be a long 300 metres to go, using the power that gave him four stage wins and one Maillot Vert to hold off Robert Hunter (Barloworld) on his right.
"This win is very good for me because I didn't have a very good start to the season. I prepared the season to be good in the Classics, in Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but I fell sick the day before Milano-Sanremo and I didn't do well in the Classics. ... Then I did the Giro. I was second twice there. It is great to win a stage because of that and I am very happy. I hope the rest of the race goes as well as today."
Hunter continues to improve and makes well on ASO's invite of the Professional Continental team Barloworld. "I wasn't too happy when I crossed the line because I don't like to lose but as I told you this morning I am feeling good and I am ready for a big result," noted the South African to Jean-François Quénet.
"I was trying to get into the right position but I was a little way back because of a Lampre guy. I had to pull on the right. Had I been closer to Hushovd it could have been a different story. I was sprinting faster than him but I came from too far back. It's the way it goes; it's the Tour de France. But I am slowly closing the gap to the first win of my career at the Tour de France."
Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank) made the top-three followed by Erik Zabel (Milram), Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital), Gert Steegmans (Quickstep-Innergetic), Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) and Steegmans' teammate Tom Boonen.
"The last kilometres were very chaotic," Boonen noted after his eighth place. "Riders were everywhere. We tried our best. We made into a gap. There was a corner at five hundred metres and that is where it went wrong. Where the other sprinters went for it, we had to brake. When Thor Hushovd went we had to brake and that is where it happened."
Tom appeared angered at the finish, maybe because he had lost the sprint but maybe it was because stage 2 winner Steegmans finished ahead of him to take some of his precious sprint points. Boonen continues to hold the sprinter's Maillot Vert by 12 points over Zabel and 14 over Robbie McEwen (Predictor).
Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) retained his race leader's Maillot Jaune as he finished safely in the group in 47th. The winner of the prologue in London and yesterday's stage to Compiègne holds 29" over Hushovd and 33" over Andreas Klöden of Astana.
The Swiss cronoman has no illusions of holding the Maillot over the Alps. "When the mountains are coming it is 'game over' for me," stated Cancellara. "My other job will start; I will look out for Schleck and Sastre. ... I want to repay those guys for what they did for me."
For his efforts Sprick was given the Prix de la Combativité for most aggressive rider. The prize is awarded at the end of each stage by a panel of judges including Tour Director Christian Prudhomme and journalists.
How it unfolded
187 riders headed out from the birthplace of Count of Monte Cristo author Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterêts, just before 13:00, and rode into some into unseasonably cool weather - a dramatic difference from last year's scorching temperatures in the Tour. After a moderate start to the day, the first action of the day was an early category four climb, the Côte De Veuilly-La-Poterie, where Alexander Kuchynski (Liquigas) took the maximum points ahead of David Millar (Saunier Duval) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) - two of his breakaway companions from stage one.
The first attacks began ahead of the 30 kilometre mark, and the successful break of the day was launched by Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom). He was joined by Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel - Euskadi), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Christian Knees (Milram) to form the day-long escape that would take all of the intermediate sprint bonuses and mountain points.
With Chavanel protecting the polka dot jersey of Augé, and none of the men up front threatening the points jersey of Tom Boonen (Quickstep), it was up to yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara's CSC team to control the pace yet again. The team didn't play any games today, and kept the gap to a maximum of four minutes with occasional help from Quickstep and Predictor-Lotto.
At the second climb of the day, the Côte De Doucy at kilometre 62.5, Chavanel mopped up the points in defense of his team-mate's polka dot jersey while Flecha came second ahead of Verdugo. Flecha then went on to take maximum points at the first intermediate sprint in La Ferte-Gaucher (km 69) in front of Chavanel and Sprick.
As the peloton worked to close the gap to the leaders, a crash in the back of the peloton felled Rémy Di Grégorio (Française des Jeux) and Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne). The latter would immediately abandon the stage, while the Frenchman continued, finally chasing back on 12 kilometres later.
The crash split the peloton into three groups, causing a little panic for the Discovery Channel team, who had to work hard to bring white jersey holder Vladimir Gusev back to the front. Averaging just over 40 kilometres per hour, the peloton held the breakaway at a near steady three to four minute lead for the majority of the day. The second intermediate sprint in Soligny-Les-Etangs was taken again by Flecha ahead of Chavanel and Milram's Knees, and then the race crossed into Yonne.
The lead began to sink as the breakaway headed up into the hills above the Yonne River valley, where they tacked the third category four climb of the day, the Côte De Galbaux holding just two minutes' advantage on the field. Chavanel bested Knees and Flecha, and as they headed toward the Côte De Bel-Air, the final climb of the day, Verdugo flatted, causing a little pause in the break's efforts.
A crash in the field slowed the chase when Cofidis' Staf Scheirlinckx ran into some cars on the road side. Up front, Verdugo had just rejoined his companions before the GPM line when Knees attacked to take the points, beating Sprick and Chavanel as the chase behind began in earnest.
Just ten kilometres down the hill into Theil-Sur-Vanne, the breakaway reached the final intermediate sprint while holding just over 90 seconds advantage on the Quickstep-led field, all the while knowing the sprinters' teams were barreling down toward them. Flecha again took the maximum points while Chavanel and Verdugo came second and third, and then it was time for the five men to gather their wits for the struggle ahead.
With the chase coming hard, the gap ticked down like a clock, and fell below one minute with 25 kilometres to go. Sensing danger, Knees attacked, and while the other four did not let him go, the increase in pace allowed the break's advantage to dangle at the one minute mark for a suspenseful seven kilometres before more teams lent their strength to the chase.
At 10km to go, it was 26 seconds, and at 9km to go it was 16, but Sprick wasn't going to take defeat lying down and launched an attack with 8.5km to go that was marked by Flecha and Knees, but spelled the end of Verdugo and Chavanel.
When a slight lull in the pace proved unsatisfactory to Knees, the German attacked again, this time shedding Verdugo, while Flecha held on for a few more kilometres. But Flecha and Knees were no match for the sprint-hungry peloton, and they finally gave up with 7 kilometres to go with a sportsmanlike shake of hands
With T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner, Credit Agricole, Quickstep and Predictor-Lotto all vying for control, the lead in the final kilometres changed again and again. Even within the last kilometre there was no clear grip on the front, and the opportunists in the peloton fired off surge after surge.
In the end, it was the perfectly timed lead out of New Zealand champion Julian Dean which launched his team-mate Thor Hushovd to victory ahead of a feisty late charge by South African sprinter Robert Hunter (Barloworld). Oscar Freire rolled in a disappointed third ahead of Erik Zabel (Milram) and Lampre's Danilo Napolitano.
Stage 5 - Thursday, July 12: Chablis - Autun, 182.5km
Starting in the town famous worldwide for crisp white wine, after five days of racing in the 2007 Tour de France, stage 5 contains some serious racing on a winding, rolling parcours with eight categorized climbs. A break will certainly get away and in the second half of the stage, the road ascends to the windy roads of Morvan Plateau before a final ascent of the Cat. 3 Côte de la Croix de la Libération with eight kilometres to race, which could make the difference for the race winning move.
Climbs: Km 39.5: Côte des Grandes-Châtelaines: 1.5km climb @ 6.7% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 52.5: Côte de Domecy-sur-Cure: 1.3km climb @ 6.2% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 58.5: Côte de Champignolles-le-Bas: 2.0km climb @ 6.5% avg. grade / 3rd Cat.
Km 86.5: Côte de Coulon: 1.0km climb @ 6.2% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 98.5: Côte de Saint-Maurice: 3.0km climb @ 5.2% avg. grade / 3rd Cat.
Km 119: Côte de Château-Chinon: 2.5km climb @ 3.8% avg. grade / 4th Cat.
Km 135.5: Haut-Folin: 12.9km climb @ 3.7% avg. grade/ 2nd Cat.
Km 174: Côte de la Croix de la Libération: 3.4km climb @ 5.4% avg. grade / 3rd Cat.
Sprints: Km 36: Avallon
Km 88: Montreuillon
Km 145: Bibracte-Mont-Beuvray
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