It had been a talking point for months and it delivered the spectacle for which everyone had hoped. Cobbles, crashes and a general sense of calamity again turned the Tour de France on its head during stage three after the previous three days had thrown their fair share of mishaps and surprises.
And while a Paris-Roubaix victory may have escaped Thor Hushovd over the years, Cervélo TestTeam's big Norwegian sprinter grabbed a fine consolation prize - a Tour stage win that took riders over sectors of pavé that turned the event's third stage, a 213km journey from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, into a miniature version of ASO's famed Spring Classic.
It had observers talking about the opening week of this year's Tour being one of the most exciting in years - certainly not formulaic - justifying the inclusion of the stage by the event's organisers. The end result was a new maillot jaune in Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider reclaiming the jersey he lost during yesterday's confusion and controversy.
The maillot vert also changed hands, with Hushovd taking over the lead in the points classification as Alessandro Petacchi was far from featuring in the finale. Despite riding in the Norwegian national champion's jersey, he's more than happy to swap the blue cross for green.
After the debacle of yesterday's finish - of which Hushovd made his feelings well known - to take the victory ahead of Cancellara was made even sweeter for the big sprinter, who proved that he'll again be a man to beat for those with aspirations of taking the title of the Tour's fastest man on the flat.
"For me today was perfect; I was really motivated to ride well. I like the cobbles and obviously Paris-Roubaix and it was a meaningful day for me," said Hushovd.
"I had this stage in mind for a long time and I'm really happy to get the win, really happy for the win, especially after yesterday.
"This morning I forgot about yesterday - it's history - I focused on today and I got the win. I hope this is the last time you see me in this jersey [the Norwegian champion's jersey] but of course I'm proud to get a win in the national champion's jersey."
The day's other big winners were Cadel Evans, who moved into third on general classification and proved that his win in stage seven of the Giro d'Italia, which was the Italian equivalent of what we witnessed on today's mini-epic, was no fluke and he's come to France prepared to fight tooth and nail for valuable seconds in the race to Paris.
The reigning UCI road world champion honoured the rainbow stripes with third on the stage and now trails Cancellara overall by just 39 seconds. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old surprise packet in his second Tour de France, Geraint Thomas, sits in second on the overall standings, 29 seconds behind Saxo Bank's Swiss master.
A brilliant spectacle in northern France
Taking riders, fans and viewers back to the northern Spring, the dust of Paris-Roubaix and the fanaticism of that time of year, ASO's miniature version of the famous cobbled Classic certainly provided a spectacle, with great anticipation building ahead of the seven sectors of pavé in store for the peloton when it departed Wanze.
Getting a head start on the task of hitting the cobbles were Steve Cummings (Team Sky), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), Pavel Brutt (Katusha), Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Roger Kluge (Milram), Stéphane Auge (Cofidis) and Imanol Erviti (Caisse d'Epargne), who broke away after about 12km and pulled out a gap of 4:10 with 30km of the stage gone.
By kilometre 52 the gap had expanded to 4:40, although with 128km to go the break's advantage had been trimmed to a manageable 3:30 thanks to the work of Sylvain Chavanel's Quick Step teammates, who aimed to keep the Frenchman in the race lead for another day.
On any other day their approach would have worked, but this was no ordinary day, as would be witnessed when the riders stumbled upon - literally, in some cases - the torturous test that lay about 40km from the finish in Arenberg.
With the gap lingering at around three minutes, a pattern emerged as the first sectors of cobbles approached - the peloton would turn the screws leading up to the pavé, sprint across the bumps, before backing off and settling into the rhythm that would keep the escape group at bay.
That worked for the Ormeignies and Hollain sectors, but it would all change when the peloton hit the third section of pavé, that of Sars-et-Rosières, which proved to be race-defining for some riders, as crashes, punctures and a sense of calamity invaded the peloton.
As soon as he hit the cobbles Fränk Schleck went down hard, as did teammate Matti Breschel, RadioShack's Jani Brajkovic and several other riders at the front of the peloton. Hitherto Saxo Bank had been dominating the front of the peloton and turning the screws to set up the brothers Schleck in an attempt at keeping them away from trouble.
It appeared as though the die was cast for who will be the number one in Saxo Bank's general classification arsenal however, as Andy, guided by Cancellara, rode the cobbles like a seasoned Roubaix campaigner while his brother lay sprawled on his back as he received medical attention.
Race within the race
With the break disintegrated save for Hesjedal's heroics off the front of the now-splintered peloton, several distinct groups emerged on the road in the wake of Sars-et-Rosières.
The first group in pursuit of the Canadian included Cancellara, Schleck, Evans, Thomas, Cummings and Hushovd, with Alberto Contador and his teammate, Alexandre Vinokourov, riding intelligently in the subsequent group over the boom-boom-boom-boom of the final four sectors of cobbles that characterised the run in to Arenberg.
The pavé had more madness in store, not least of all for seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. He suffered a puncture not long after Contador had caught his group and required pacing by experienced teammate Yaroslav Popovych in a 30km stretch that certainly did not go to plan for Team RadioShack. Up ahead meanwhile, the American's rivals on general classification were riding towards gains on the overall standings.
It may be his last Tour but there were no gifts for Armstrong, who could be seen fighting his way alone through the team cars amongst the dust, the pavé and the French fans, while the big names ahead were catching Hesjedal and thinking about the stage win.
Maillot jaune Chavanel was experiencing similar problems on a day to forget - after riding on cloud nine below the rain clouds of Spa yesterday afternoon, the Frenchman required two bike changes en route to losing the race lead. Meanwhile Hesjedal, hitting the final sector of pavé with 10km to go, was keeping the faith for Garmin-Transitions with a 20-second advantage.
After he was caught with 6.5km to go it became an exercise in mathematics for the overall contenders such as Evans, who helped maintain the elite selection's pace to the line while Hushovd shaped up for the sprint; who would bet against the man who has taken second and third in the past two editions of Paris-Roubaix after enjoying an armchair ride to the finish?
And so it was that the Norwegian cantered to the line ahead of Thomas and Evans, with a visibly spent Cancellara putting in an exceptional performance to keep his slight-of-build Luxembourg teammate, Andy Schleck, out of harm's way on another day which made this year's Tour one of the most intriguing in recent history.
Evans: "A little bit is better than nothing"
Apart from Hushovd and Cancellara, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck were those who gained most today.
Evans was typically understated in his appraisal of the day. "Twenty seconds isn't going to mean much after the Pyrenees," he said. "But a little bit is better than nothing.
"I'm not quite built for the cobbles. With the wind and everything, there wasn't any chance for any big heroics."
Evans felt that the cobbled section of Sars-et-Rosières is where the damage was done. "It was probably the worst [section]," Evans said. "On the shoulders it was all cut up."
Andy Schleck had mixed emotions after the stage. "It wasn't a good day's work because I lost my brother. It's tough even though I'm happy that he's only broken his clavicle, I know how that is. I broke it three times, so I'm happy that's all it is."
However, Schleck recognised he had compensated for an unsteady start to his Tour. "The prologue went badly, yesterday I fell three times, but it was hard for everybody. Today we knew that we could change that. I was well placed on Fabian Cancellara's wheel. I rode flat out with him and I made good gains."
His manager Bjarne Riis was pleased with his day's work. "When you choose to include cobbles in the race, you also choose to include huge risks for the riders," Riis said. "Undoubtedly, we're going to miss Fränk in the mountains. But that's life and that's the way the race is. The whole team did a tremendous job out there today and Fabian and Andy's performance was simply exceptional."
Lance Armstrong was philosophical about his turbulent day in the saddle. "Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail. Today I was the nail. I have 20 days now to be the hammer."
Sylvain Chavanel was disappointed to lose the yellow jersey due to mechanical trouble. "There was that crash that made my chain come off, and then I was the victim of two punctures," he said. "As I didn't have the legs, it became very difficult [to get back on].
"I left a lot of energy on the road to Spa," Chavanel said. "The longer this stage went on, the less good I felt. But nothing will take from my pleasure in having won a stage of the Tour and having spent this day in yellow on the cobbles. It's not serious. I'll try to recover, the Tour isn't over and I'm going to try again to enjoy myself."
Another hit from left field: Awards corner
On an epic day there were several Cyclingnews Tour de France stage awards
'Mr Dependable' - Fabian Cancellara and Alexandre Vinokourov, who both escorted teammates over the tough terrain to help them stay in the race for yellow.
'Mr Surprising' - Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who didn't suffer the fate some expected of the slight climbers; rather, they excelled in the conditions given their lack of experience on pavé
'Honouring the jersey' - World champion Cadel Evans and British road champion Geraint Thomas, who helped drive the front group to victory and enhanced their chances of remaining near the top of the general classification.
Stage 4 - Wednesday, July 7 2010, Cambrai - Reims Distance, 150 km
Arguably the easiest stage on this year’s route, these 153.5km take the race into the heart of Champagne country to finish in the beautiful cathedral city of Reims.
While not as flat as previous stages, there are no significant lumps and it’s a relatively short distance. That means that there’s barely time for any breakaway riders to build a useful advantage before the sprinters’ teams will gather to chase them down.
A possible complicating factor is the wind on Champagne’s exposed plains, but it would have to be some breeze to trouble the peloton enough to lead to a split. Nevertheless, if it is windy you can expect the riders to be nervous. Ultimately, that’s likely to mean that crashes are a bigger threat to the favourites than the formation of echelons.
|Rider Name (Country) Team
|Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team
|Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
|Row 1 - Cell 2
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team
|Row 2 - Cell 2
|Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Transitions
|Row 3 - Cell 2
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank
|Row 4 - Cell 2
|Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank
|Row 5 - Cell 2
|Johan Van Summeren (Bel) Garmin - Transitions