Astana controls first Tour week

Galloping sprints, dramatic crashes, French victories and inner rivalries added to the excitement of the first week of the 2009 Tour de France. Saxo Bank may have spent the first six stages with the maillot jaune on Fabian Cancellara's shoulders, Columbia-HTC may have taken two stages with Mark Cavendish, but all eyes were focused on Team Astana and the Tour de France comeback of its most famous rider.

With the return of Lance Armstrong, the Tour has enjoyed bigger crowds, more press and undoubtedly more drama than it has seen since he left the sport back in 2005. His battle to establish himself as leader of his team was the theme of the first week, even if, as his team likes to claim, much of it was fabricated by the press.

Round one, the opening time trial, saw Contador get a leg up in the leadership department with a second place finish, laying claim to the race's first mountains jersey. Armstrong finished a solid 10th place but on stage three he set tongues a-wagging by leaving Contador behind when the field was split in strong crosswinds by Team Columbia-HTC. With that move he pulled himself into third overall, 19 seconds ahead of his Spanish teammate.

Harmony was restored within the Kazakh-backed team's camp in time for the Astana squad to smash the overall classification to bits in the team time trial. Many a GC hopeful lost his chance at winning the Tour on that fateful day and Armstrong came within fractions of a second of claiming his beloved maillot jaune.

That stage might have been the 37-year-old's best chance of taking the lead in the race, however. Three days later, on the climb to Andorra Arcalis, Contador stamped his authority on the race and the role of team leader with a stunning, final-kilometre attack that was apparently, 'not according to the plan'.

Showing that there may be no need to ban race radios, opening-week breakaways had unprecedented success this year - on three separate occasions the victor from the escape came from the race's host nation and won for a French team. Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo made Bouygues Telecom's Tour a huge success with wins, while newcomer Brice Feillu gave Agritubel a dramatic victory in Andorra.

Stage One: Monaco - Monaco (ITT) 15.5km

The opening time trial was all about Fabian Cancellara. Saxo Bank's Swiss maestro pounded his way through the difficult 15.5km course, taking the stage win and the first yellow jersey. Behind him, Alberto Contador (Astana) signalled his intent with a second-place finish as Garmin's Bradley Wiggins rounded out the podium with a one-second margin separating the Brit and the Spaniard.

Astana was able to drop a not-so-subtle hint as to what to expect in the coming three weeks by placing four riders in the top 10: Contador (second), Andreas Klöden (fourth), Levi Leipheimer (sixth) and Armstrong (10th), 40 seconds down.

There were a few surprises in the top 10 - Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali made it a great opening day for Liquigas while Columbia HTC's Tony Martin finished in eighth place, second behind Contador in the mountain ranking.

Stage Two: Monaco - Brignoles 187km

The first bunch sprint delivered the expected outcome: a win by Mark Cavendish. A crash with less than one kilometre remaining split the group and foiled the hopes of several spinters, including Quick Step's Tom Boonen. Garmin-Sipstream's Tyler Farrar showed skill and fearlessness in positioning himself on the Manxman's wheel but his power was no match for the Columbia-HTC star.

The split allowed a few new faces to gain air time on international television: Yukiya Arashiro, one of the two Japanese riders in the race, took fifth behind Agritubel's Roman Feillu and Thor Hushovd of Cervelo.

The stage was marked by a four-man strong escape which got away after only 14km and built up a lead of some five-and-a-half minutes. Team Columbia-HTC took responsibility for bringing them back with 10km to go for the sprint finale but was clearly displeased by the lack of assistance from the other sprint teams and would get revenge the following day.

Stage Three: Marseille - La Grande-Motte 196.5km

Cavendish once again won the sprint in a bizarre stage dominated by his team, but the story of the day was the way in which his team split the field in the strong crosswinds - the inclusion of Lance Armstrong in the lead group and the absence of Alberto Contador added fuel to the fire of possible leadership intrigue within the Astana squad.

Once again the breakaway was a four-man affair, and once again it was Team Columbia-HTC who led the chase. But with 30 km to go on an exceptionally windy day, the team found the perfect condition to create a split and took full advantage of it. The resulting 28-man group included the entire Columbia team, the yellow jersey holder Cancellara, and Armstrong.

Despite Contador being caught behind and losing time, the seven-time Tour winner instructed two teammates to turn on the speed and power the selection. The group eventually caught the escapees and finished the stage 41 seconds ahead of the peloton, which contained most of the favourites, including Contador.

Stage Four: Montpellier - Montpellier (TTT) 39km

Any doubts about Astana's credentials to win this year's Tour de France were dispelled on stage four. The Kazakh-sponsored team was the last out of the starting blocks and blasted its way around the dangerously narrow, windswept course to hold an 18-second advantage at the finish. It wasn't enough for Armstrong to take over the yellow jersey though, and Cancellara retained it by a mere 22 hundredths of a second.

Astana's performance aside, the stage was notable for its difficulty due to a multitude of hazards. One corner near the start claimed numerous victims, including big names such as Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and road race world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre). The most dramatic episode of the stage saw four Bbox Bouygues Telecom riders crash into a field. Skil-Shimano also suffered a wreck, losing Piet Rooijakkers with a broken arm.

Almost half the teams had riders crash, leading many to criticise the organisers for the design of the stage.

Stage Five: Le Cap d'Agde - Perpignan 196.5km

French darling Thomas Voeckler always seems to make the breakaway but rarely picks the one that stays away. By most predictions, stage five should have been a sprinter's day and indeed the break was caught, bar two riders. Voeckler's move on the outskirts of Perpignan caught his breakaway companions napping and with it he surprised even himself by soloing to a brilliant victory.

The Cavendish-led peloton thundered across the line only seconds later, giving the Columbia-HTC man more points towards the green jersey, but he missed the chance of a third stage victory with a chase that was organised too late.

Six riders got away early on the stage and built a sizeable advantage, the Tramonte winds appearing to enhance their chances as race leader Fabian Cancellara tore the peloton to shreds with 60km left to race. Robert Gesink was a victim of those winds, crashing heavily and finishing the stage with a broken wrist. The Rabobank rider would not start the next day.

With powerhouse riders Yauheni Hutarovich and Mikhail Ignatiev continuing to drive the escape, the chase needed to be organised rapidly and effectively if a sprinter was to prevail. It wasn't, handing the advantage to the leaders, of which Voeckler was the most cunning and cleared out solo to take the win.

Stage Six: Girona – Barcelona, 181.5 km

A rainy day in Spain led to another bunch sprint, but with a short, six-percent climb inside the final 1500m it wasn't a day for another Cavendish victory. Instead, Thor Hushovd of Cervelo mastered the sharp climb and sprinted to the win ahead of Oscar Freire. It was a miserable rainy day which saw numerous crashes along the way, and once again Boonen was kept out of the sprint because of a wreck.

As usual, an escape group got away on this rolling stage and very nearly made it to the end. Garmin-Slipstream's David Millar was the last man left standing and looked to take the win after a solo bid for victory. The Scotsman came oh-so-close, surrendering his advantage on the final climb against the frenzied sprinters.

Stage Seven: Barcelona - Andorra Arcalis 224km

Two Tour de France debutantes made their mark today, as 23-year-old Brice Feillu of Agritubel took the stage win in the first mountain stage and 31-year-old Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) took over the yellow leader's jersey. Once again, an escape group came through to the end, and brought in the two surprising – and surprised – winners.

Four climbs dotted the parcours on the way to the mountain top finish at Andorra Arcalis but the fireworks from the general classification men would wait until the final ascent. Cadel Evans threw down a spirited challenge but only Alberto Contador had enough spring in his legs to successfully leap away from the group of favourites. He put 21 seconds on his closest challengers, including Armstrong, who wasn't particularly pleased with the turns of event. It also hopscotched the Spaniard ahead of Armstrong into second place overall.

Stage Eight: Andorre-la-Vieille - Saint-Girons 176.5km

Another Andorran stage, another successful break attempt. Caisse d'Epargne's Luis Leon Sanchez was the lucky winner on the second day in the Pyrenees. Thor Hushovd, who was in the original escape group, won two of the intermediate sprints to take over the green jersey from Mark Cavendish.

The eight-man escape group didn't form until about 100km to go and had shrunk to four by the finish. Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R-La Mondiale) attacked with four kilometres to go. Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) led the charge to catch him although it was Sanchez who cleverly slipped around to take the victory.

Two of the favourites tried to put in some time today, Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) and Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck. Both attacks were quickly shut down by Astana.

Stage Nine: Saint-Gaudens - Tarbes 160.5km

The final Pyrenean stage continued the theme of the last two days: a successful escape group that duped the peloton while the favourites clung together in a group. Havign spent most of the day off the front, Bbox Bouygues Telecom's Pierrick Fedrigo outfoxed Franco Pellizotti (Lampre) to take the stage win to go with his victory in Gap in 2006. French fans were cheering even louder, the victory in Tarbes the third thus far this Tour.

The stage featured two major climbs, the Category One Col d'Aspin and the HC Col du Tourmalet, but the feared climbs were smack in the middle of the stage. The relatively flat final 50km didn't much anything to offer anyone but the sprinters and once again the favoured riders ignored any opportunity along the way to do anything.

For images of the Tour de France's first week click here

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