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Thor thunders to sixth tour stage win

Valverde holds onto maillot jaune, Voeckler fortifies mountains lead

Tipped by some as the likely top contender for the maillot vert this year, Thor Hushovd showed he is certainly in the right kind of form with a powerful sprint victory into Saint Brieuc. The Crédit Agricole rider jumped hard and held off the other riders in the uphill rise to the line, nabbing his sixth career stage win in the race and driving the Norwegian supporters crazy.

"It was a really hard sprint, with the wind in the finale and in the climbs, but I knew it was a sprint that fits me well," he said after the podium presentation. "My team-mates did a good job again, and especially Mark Renshaw. He was awesome until with 200 metres to go and then it was just up to me to do a sprint. Today everything worked out 100 percent."

Hushovd timed his gallop to perfection even though new points leader Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia) was the quickest in the final 100 metres. He finished a close second and might well have taken the stage had the line been a little further away.

"I was held up by a crash and had to come from behind. I fell short, but it is okay," he stated. The Luxembourg rider took over at the top of the points classification from race leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), who himself sprinted home in twelfth place and maintained his one second lead in the general classification.

"Because of the course, the wind and the fact we had to chase behind the breakaway, today's stage was a very fast one, very hard and also a little bit dangerous," said the Spaniard afterwards. "I particularly want to highlight the fact that it was really beautiful to spend this second stage of the Tour with the yellow jersey upon my shoulders. I was really moved when I saw all those people along the road who encouraged me and shouted my name.

"I believe that today, all the riders of the bunch spent some energy. We will see if tomorrow's stage and its easier profile will be a quieter one in advance of the time trial on Tuesday."

Kirchen is now second and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) third, while Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) – who had started the day second overall - crashed with just over a kilometre to go. He was later awarded the same time as the bunch but dropped to twelfth.

French fans were first tantalised and then frustrated by the day's events, with ongoing mountains leader Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and today's most aggressive rider Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) going clear early on and then later being joined by the Agritubel duo of Christophe Moreau and David Le Lay.

This quartet resisted the peloton's chase until the final three kilometres, with a solo move by Chavanel taking him a little further before his own recapture. CSC-Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara tried to do what worked twice in the Tour de Suisse – namely a strong solo attack on the run in towards the line – but he was hauled back by Liquigas' Filippo Pozzato. The sprinters then opened up the jets, with Hushovd thundering home ahead of Kirchen and his Columbian team-mate Gerald Ciolek. Robert Hunter (Team Barloworld), Erik Zabel (Milram) and Yury Trofimov (Bouygues Telecom) completed the top six places.

"When Cancellara went away you know it's always dangerous," the Norwegian said. "I told Renshaw not to panic. With 450 metres to go we went. It was a perfect lead-out for me."

The brisk winds, twisting roads and undulating course combined to make the stage another testing one for the rider's concentration. Both Franck Schleck (Team CSC) and Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) spoke of this challenge after the stage, the riders crediting team-mates with helping to keep them safe.

"Everything was really, really nervous in the final," Schleck said. "I have to give a big, big thanks to Fabian [Cancellara], he was just amazing today for me. I was on his wheel for the last 50 kilometres in order to keep out of danger."

Devolder also spoke of the gusts. "It was dangerous with the wind, but I have a very good team to ride in front of the peloton and I had no problems. They then rode for [Gert] Steegmans in the finale, but it was very difficult to win a stage like that with the wind. And, with that climb, the finale was tough."

With the Tour de France being the biggest race of the season, everyone is at the limit trying to help a team leader or to win themselves. Team Columbia's Mark Cavendish articulated this after the finish, saying that even the flatter stages of the Tour are tougher than the other events on the calendar.

"These sprints are very fast. Obviously the human body is restricted as to how fast it actually can go, so the last couple of hundred metres of every sprint is more or less the same speed. But it is the 50 kilometres before it which are between five and ten kilometres per hour faster than any other race. And that's with it being five to ten kilometres per hour faster than anything else for the rest of the stage.

"You also have got all the GC riders trying to stay up there as well, which makes it a bit more hectic."

Cavendish was dropped on the run-in to the finish but managed to get back on to the peloton, finishing 27th. He – along with many of the other gallopers – are relishing the thought of tomorrow's flatter parcours, and hopes that this will make a difference for his chances.

One who will also be happy to see the finish in Nantes – albeit for different reasons - is Barloworld's Juan Mauricio Soler. The Colombian started the race as a possible general classification contender but suffered after his crash yesterday, finishing seven minutes 18 seconds down in last place. He's also last on GC after two stages, the damage being done due to his crash yesterday and possible fractured wrist.

"He is tired because of the problem with his hand," said directeur sportif Alberto Volpi. "But he finished the stage, it showed a bit of character. I think that tomorrow after the race we will have another examination if we can get a scanner {x-ray] and the decision about him continuing or not will be taken then. If there is no fracture, fine. If there is one, we will see..."

How it unfolded

179 riders lined up in Auray after Hervé Duclos-Lassalle was forced to abandon following his feed zone crash on stage one. He broke his arm in a crash which happened when a musette from another rider got stuck in his front wheel. The temperatures were nice (18 degrees), but slight rain dampened the spirits a bit. At 12:59, the riders took the départ fictif, led by the distinctive jerseys of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) in yellow, Philippe Gilbert (FdJ) in green, Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) in the polka dot and Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval) in white.

After rolling along for a good ten minutes, Christian Prudhomme waved the flag at 13:11 and the pace immediately hastened. After less than one kilometre Garmin-Chipotle's Danny Pate was the first to attack. He took several riders with him, but after a few kilometres, only Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Murilo Fischer (Liquigas) and Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) remained on the front.

After 22 kilometres, when the riders headed up the first climb of the day, the break was caught. Protecting Voeckler's jersey, the Bouygues Telecom team kept the race together ahead of the Côte de Bieuzy-Lanvaux. Sylvain Chavanel attacked on the climb, and took the maximum points, while behind him second placed in the mountains classification Björn Schröder (Team Milram) led out the sprint, but Voeckler easily passed the German before the line.

Chavanel and Voeckler kept going while Schröder dropped back into the bunch, and the pair extended their lead to over half a minute. Chavanel passed the sprint in Camors at kilometre 28.5 in first, with Voeckler behind. Robert Hunter stormed out of the peloton to get third and the last remaining sprint points.

As the duo continued to extend their advantage, Caisse d'Epargne was doing the work behind, leaving everyone to wonder if Alejandro Valverde wants to defend the jersey all the way to Paris.

A gentleman's agreement in the break saw Voeckler take the mountain points on the Côte de Kergroix, giving Voeckler an even bigger lead over Schröder in the mountains classification, while Chavanel mopped up all the intermediate sprint points along the way.

Behind the leaders, two sprinters suffered from mechanical incidents: McEwen had to change bikes and return to the bunch by himself as Silence Lotto dedicates all its resources to Cadel Evans this year. In contrast, Mark Cavendish, who flatted after the descent of the Côte de Kergroix, had a team helper almost immediately.

The leaders gained a maximum advantage of six and a half minutes with 100km to go, but then the gap began to shrink steadily. Philippe Gilbert, who wore the green jersey as second placed in that competition behind Valverde, secured third place in Pontivy before the peloton gingerly entered the feed zone, taking caution to avoid a crash like that which took out Duclos-Lassalle.

But it was to no avail, as Nicolas Jalabert (Agritubel) touched wheels with Fränk Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank). Jalabert went down, but could continue without problems. Whereas in the early part of the stage, rain and sun were taking turns over the riders, the rain became more steady as the break went up the Côte de Mûr-de-Bretagne, the first category three climb of the Tour.

Voeckler was able to add more points again as the leaders went up through an enthusiastic crowd. But after a brief discussion, Chavanel crossed the line ahead of Voeckler. The peloton followed almost three minutes later, led over the summit by Christophe Moreau (Agritubel).

The final climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Mayeux, followed almost immediately. Moreau and team-mate David Le Lay (Agritubel) kept going and Moreau also took third place on the final climb. There, Voeckler led Chavanel over the line, giving the Bouygues Telecom rider a comfortable lead in the mountains classification. Le Lay and Moreau quickly got to within a minute and a half of the leaders.

Voeckler flatted just before the final sprint of the day, in Corlay. But a quick bike change brought him back up to Chavanel. The two decided to sit up and wait for the fast charging Agritubel duo. Le Lay was allowed to cross the sprint line ahead of his captain. With about 56 kilometres left to race, the two groups joined forces, giving Chavanel, Voeckler, Le Lay and Moreau quadruple power.

Française des Jeux took over the work at the front now, as Gilbert's stunt at the intermediate sprint indicated that he was feeling well today. Under the French team's pressure the gap was reduced to 2'40 with 52 kilometres remaining.

The rain let up as the Caisse/Française des Jeux led peloton inched closer to the leaders. With 40 kilometres remaining, the gap was just above the two-minute mark. Five kilometre later it was 1'35.

Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval-Scott) had a crash with less than 30 kilometres to go. It was bad timing, as Quick Step began pouring its power into reeling in the break. The high speed chase brought the gap down to about 1'20 when the leaders hit Mississipi -a town that should made all the US riders feel at home. Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), who lost three minutes due to a crash yesterday, also got spit out the back.

There was a heavy cross wind and Quick Step took full advantage of their Belgian experience to build up an impressive echelon at the front. Without Tom Boonen, they were looking to Gert Steegmans, while the black and white flags of the Bretagne were snapped to attention in the wind.

The peloton passed the 20-kilometre marker about a minute behind. Despite giving it some stick now, the peloton couldn't make up ground and with 14 kilometres to go the gap was still 59 seconds. Bertogliati and Soler were fighting behind, trying not to lose too much time.

With 11 kilometres to go it was also Crédit Agricole who helped out at the front. Moreau was doing a tremendous amount of work at the front of the break, but now the gap came down. 10 kilometres from the finish it was 42 seconds.

Jimmy Engoulvent was doing most of the pulling for Crédit Agricole in the peloton. The break hit the five-kilometre marker just 30 seconds ahead – it was touch and go. The final part was uphill, so the break eventually didn't succeed, and Chavanel was the last rider caught.

Fabian Cancellara tried his trademark last-minute attack, but was not successful this time. Thor Hushovd launched the sprint perfectly and won in St. Brieuc.

Stage 3 - Monday, July 7: Saint-Malo - Nantes, 208km

This should be a stage for the sprinters, especially as there are no classified climbs on today's route. After a rolling start over the small roads of Brittany, the course joins the fast, wider roads as it heads south to the finish in Nantes. The port town of Saint-Malo is the most-visited place in the region of Brittany. From here it is possible to catch a ferry to and from various ports in the UK and the Channel Islands.

This will be the Tour's eighth visit to Saint-Malo, the last time was 1980 when Dutchman Bert Oosterbosch took victory. This will be the 31st visit of the Tour to Nantes, situated as it is on the river Loire close to where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. The city was one of the original stage towns visited in 1903, where victory – and the race lead – was taken by eventual winner Maurice Garin.

The last time was 100 years later when Britain's David Millar (then Cofidis, now Slipstream-Chipotle) won a rain-soaked time trial as Lance Armstrong (US Postal) and a crashing Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) shadowed each other for the overall.

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