Take two for Ale-Jet

Much has been said of the many 'veterans' riding this year's Tour de France and this afternoon in Reims the 'Aged Brigade' demonstrated they've got the legs to go with their years of experience at the season's biggest race. Fastest of them was Alessandro Petacchi, who turned back the clock and made the 'Youth Brigade' look slow with a sprint reminiscent of his prime.

The 36-year-old from La Spezia proved that his victory in a crash-marred first stage in Brussels, when most of the peloton was held up by incidents in the final kilometre, was no stroke of luck brought on by the lack of competition in the finale. A long, hard sprint against a full compliment of fast men in the middle of the Champagne region was evidence of this.

The champagne would be flowing for Petacchi following his second stage win in this year's Tour. Amongst those other experienced hands animating the finish of stage four were Danilo Hondo, Julian Dean and Robbie McEwen, the latter jumping out of the pack with Petacchi at the 200m mark to ambush Mark Cavendish, who was swamped when lead-out man Mark Renshaw swung off in the finale.

The 'Manx Missile' lacked the speed to which fans became accustomed during last year's Tour and while his HTC-Columbia teammates pulled together well - as they usually do - in the closing kilometres of today's stage, the myriad crashes and unsettled nature of this opening week may have taken their toll on Cavendish.

It's a sign of the open nature of this year's Tour de France that the experienced riders we saw contesting the finale today are in the running for stage wins. Consequently, the result in Reims blows the doors of the points competition wide open. Whilst Thor Hushovd held onto the green jersey courtesy of ninth place in the sprint, his lead remains a slim 10 points over Petacchi and 18 on McEwen.

"I was too early in the front in the sprint. I was on the wheel of Cavendish, but Petacchi started a long sprint, and I had to start my sprint again," said Hushovd. "He was faster today, so chapeau.

"I have good legs. I think I can do what I did last year and pick up some points in the medium mountain stages. Of course I want to win the green jersey again, but first I want to win another stage. The fight to the green jersey is just starting... I have to take it day by day and try to pick up points when I can," he added.

And while some observers may be writing off Cavendish's chances of taking green in Paris, the uncertain nature of this year's Tour thus far may yet have something special in store for the British rider. He demonstrated to doubters that he's capable of coming back from adversity in a less-than-subtle manner during the Tour de Romandie in May and he could yet again prove them wrong in the coming weeks, despite finishing outside the top 10 in Reims.

But today was all about Lampre-Farnese Vini's effort in delivering Petacchi to the right place at the right time. General classification contender Damiano Cunego may have struggled at the back of the peloton over the previous three days - a trend that continued today - but Petacchi, aided by Hondo, Grega Bole and Simon Spilak, turned back the clock to 2003, when he was virtually untouchable during the Tour's first week before he abandoned after securing four stage wins.

For overnight race leader Fabian Cancellara, his run in the maillot jaune will continue tomorrow, the Saxo Bank rider remaining fairly anonymous during today's stage as the efforts of yesterday were sure to have left his legs a little dead. He wasn't alone in that department, as the likes of Hushovd, Cavendish and co. all appeared to be suffering from the effects of a bruising 213 kilometres from Wanze to Arenberg.

This was confirmed by Hushovd after the finish, explaining, "I wanted to do better, but I missed the power in the sprint today. It's the fatigue of the efforts from the past three days catching up with me, especially from yesterday.

"Also, today was our first day in the heat, and I don't do really well in the heat, so I was suffering all day."

A semblance of normality...

After the manic days of the opening week so far, today's 153.5km jaunt from Cambrai to Reims would serve as a chance for riders to lick their wounds and take a little rest amongst friends in the peloton.

That was aided by the early break which went after two kilometres, when Dmitri Champion (AG2R-La Mondiale) sparked a quintet of riders into action and formed the escape group that was allowed to get away early.

Iban Mayoz (Footon-Servetto), Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox-Bouygues Telecom), Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi) joined Champion ahead of the peloton and they set about establishing a suitable lead, which in fairness was always going to be controlled by the sprinters' teams behind.

With 133km remaining in the stage the gap was 3:13, the most leash the break was given on a day that had to come down to a sprint. Keeping it in check was Kanstantin Siutsou (HTC-Columbia), who for the better part of 50km seemed to be at the front of the peloton every time the TV cameras panned over the main bunch.

With 124km remaining in the stage the gap had been reduced to 2:54 although soon after it was cut to about two minutes, and there it remained for much of the afternoon, the sprinters' teams keen to conserve their assets but even more focused on avoiding any mistakes that may cost them the opportunity of a stage win.

As the bunch approached 60km to go it was holding the break at 1:23 and a further 10km down the road that had been cut to 1:10; just three kilometres later the escape group would be in sight of the peloton, although it took 44km to actually catch the plucky quintet, which in reality never stood a chance.

Cervélo TestTeam and HTC-Columbia turned up the volume with about 35km to go, deciding it was time that the break's advantage be slashed. Lampre-Farnese Vini made its presence felt with about 13km remaining, in an attempt to get Alessandro Petacchi into position for the sprint in Reims.

Grega Bole and Danilo Hondo earned their keep for the Italian team, as did Tony Martin for HTC-Columbia, who took over from Siutsou as the American squad's workhorse at the front coming into the final 30km.

HTC-Columbia's control to no avail

With Martin having driven the pace at the front of the peloton in a mission to search-and-destroy the break, it was time for Bob Stapleton's men to do what they do best - control proceedings for their sprinter, Cavendish, as he sought his first stage win at this year's Tour.

As Erik Zabel predicted before the event, most of the sprinters' teams were content to sit back, watch and wait for HTC-Columbia to drag them to the finish line. McEwen, Hushovd, Petacchi, Ciolek... all the big names were there and it was Petacchi's teammate, Hondo, who hit out early and disrupted the yellow train approaching the flamme rouge.

While Bernhard Eisel was swamped during his turn on the front, by the time Mark Renshaw took over pacing duties the order had settled and the green jersey of Hushovd could be seen on Cav's wheel with 200m to go.

When Renshaw swung off and Cavendish was expected to spring out of the slipstream instead it was Petacchi who took his cue to take off down the left side of the road with Robbie McEwen on his wheel and Julian Dean behind the Australian with teammate Robbie Hunter waiting in the wings.

The man known as 'Ale-Jet' surged hard towards the line in the only manner he knows how and it worked to perfection, with the Italian never seriously headed and his margin of victory a comfortable half-bike length.

Despite requiring a visit to the hospital after stage two, along with teammates Farrar and Christian Vande Velde, Dean gave Ale-Jet a run for his money. "I didn't feel super, I've been around a long time and I know how to follow wheels and get in position in the sprints," said Dean. "I didn't quite have it to overcome Petacchi at the finish, but second isn't bad considering I came out of the hospital two days ago. "

A few numbers from the finish:

The top five in today's stage boasted ages of 36 (Petacchi), 34 (Dean), 23 (Boasson Hagen), 38 (McEwen) and 33 (Hunter), with the Norwegian at least a decade younger than the next youngest man in the first five over the line.

Full Results

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#Rider Name (Country) TeamResult
1Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini3:34:55
2Julian Dean (NZl) Garmin - TransitionsRow 1 - Cell 2
3Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 2 - Cell 2
4Robbie McEwen (Aus) Team KatushaRow 3 - Cell 2
5Robert Hunter (RSA) Garmin - TransitionsRow 4 - Cell 2
6Sébastien Turgot (Fra) Bbox Bouygues TelecomRow 5 - Cell 2
7Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Caisse d'EpargneRow 6 - Cell 2
8Daniel Oss (Ita) Liquigas-DoimoRow 7 - Cell 2
9Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test TeamRow 8 - Cell 2
10Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) RabobankRow 9 - Cell 2
11Gerald Ciolek (Ger) Team MilramRow 10 - Cell 2
12Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team HTC - ColumbiaRow 11 - Cell 2
13Brent Bookwalter (USA) BMC Racing TeamRow 12 - Cell 2
14Samuel Sánchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel - EuskadiRow 13 - Cell 2
15Vasili Kiryienka (Blr) Caisse d'EpargneRow 14 - Cell 2
16Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing TeamRow 15 - Cell 2
17Sandy Casar (Fra) Française des JeuxRow 16 - Cell 2
18Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 17 - Cell 2
19Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 18 - Cell 2
20Carlos Barredo Llamazales (Spa) Quick StepRow 19 - Cell 2
21Sebastian Lang (Ger) Omega Pharma-LottoRow 20 - Cell 2
22Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 21 - Cell 2
23Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin - TransitionsRow 22 - Cell 2
24Lloyd Mondory (Fra) AG2R La MondialeRow 23 - Cell 2
25Stuart O'Grady (Aus) Team Saxo BankRow 24 - Cell 2
26Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo BankRow 25 - Cell 2
27Christophe Riblon (Fra) AG2R La MondialeRow 26 - Cell 2
28Martin Elmiger (Swi) AG2R La MondialeRow 27 - Cell 2
29Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma-LottoRow 28 - Cell 2
30Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quick StepRow 29 - Cell 2
31Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-LottoRow 30 - Cell 2
32Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) AstanaRow 31 - Cell 2
33Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-DoimoRow 32 - Cell 2
34George Hincapie (USA) BMC Racing TeamRow 33 - Cell 2
35Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La MondialeRow 34 - Cell 2
36Lance Armstrong (USA) Team RadioshackRow 35 - Cell 2
37Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Team MilramRow 36 - Cell 2
38Thomas Rohregger (Aut) Team MilramRow 37 - Cell 2
39Egoi Martinez De Esteban (Spa) Euskaltel - EuskadiRow 38 - Cell 2
40Ruben Perez Moreno (Spa) Euskaltel - EuskadiRow 39 - Cell 2
41Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Team MilramRow 40 - Cell 2
42Michael Barry (Can) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 41 - Cell 2
43Christian Knees (Ger) Team MilramRow 42 - Cell 2
44Tony Martin (Ger) Team HTC - ColumbiaRow 43 - Cell 2
45Johannes Fröhlinger (Ger) Team MilramRow 44 - Cell 2
46Alexander Kuschynski (Blr) Liquigas-DoimoRow 45 - Cell 2
47Mark Renshaw (Aus) Team HTC - ColumbiaRow 46 - Cell 2
48Simon Gerrans (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling TeamRow 47 - Cell 2
49Manuel Quinziato (Ita) Liquigas-DoimoRow 48 - Cell 2
50Gorka Verdugo Marcotegui (Spa) Euskaltel - EuskadiRow 49 - Cell 2
51Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-DoimoRow 50 - Cell 2
52Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team RadioshackRow 51 - Cell 2
53Grégory Rast (Swi) Team RadioshackRow 52 - Cell 2
54Yukiya Arashiro (Jpn) Bbox Bouygues TelecomRow 53 - Cell 2
55Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team RadioshackRow 54 - Cell 2
56Imanol Erviti Ollo (Spa) Caisse d'EpargneRow 55 - Cell 2
57Maxime Monfort (Bel) Team HTC - ColumbiaRow 56 - Cell 2
58Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo BankRow 57 - Cell 2
59Aitor Perez Arrieta (Spa) Footon-ServettoRow 58 - Cell 2
60Johan Van Summeren (Bel) Garmin - TransitionsRow 59 - Cell 2
61Jérôme Pineau (Fra) Quick StepRow 60 - Cell 2
62Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) AstanaRow 61 - Cell 2
63Denis Menchov (Rus) RabobankRow 62 - Cell 2
64Maarten Tjallingii (Ned) RabobankRow 63 - Cell 2
65Eduard Vorganov (Rus) Team KatushaRow 64 - Cell 2
66Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Team RadioshackRow 65 - Cell 2
67Bram Tankink (Ned) RabobankRow 66 - Cell 2
68Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick StepRow 67 - Cell 2
69Julien El Farès (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en LigneRow 68 - Cell 2
70Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Team Saxo BankRow 69 - Cell 2
71Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Omega Pharma-LottoRow 70 - Cell 2
72Christopher Horner (USA) Team RadioshackRow 71 - Cell 2
73Andriy Grivko (Ukr) AstanaRow 72 - Cell 2
74Luis León Sánchez Gil (Spa) Caisse d'EpargneRow 73 - Cell 2
75Maxim Iglinskiy (Kaz) AstanaRow 74 - Cell 2
76Arkaitz Duran Daroca (Spa) Footon-ServettoRow 75 - Cell 2
77Fabio Felline (Ita) Footon-ServettoRow 76 - Cell 2
78Iban Velasco Murillo (Spa) Euskaltel - EuskadiRow 77 - Cell 2
79Maarten Wijnants (Bel) Quick StepRow 78 - Cell 2
80Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team KatushaRow 79 - Cell 2
81Michael Rogers (Aus) Team HTC - ColumbiaRow 80 - Cell 2
82Matti Breschel (Den) Team Saxo BankRow 81 - Cell 2
83José Ivan Gutierrez Palacios (Spa) Caisse d'EpargneRow 82 - Cell 2
84Brett Lancaster (Aus) Cervelo Test TeamRow 83 - Cell 2
85Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Team KatushaRow 84 - Cell 2
86Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Caisse d'EpargneRow 85 - Cell 2
87Damien Monier (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en LigneRow 86 - Cell 2
88Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Team RadioshackRow 87 - Cell 2
88Christophe Moreau (Fra) Caisse d'EpargneRow 88 - Cell 2
90Luke Roberts (Aus) Team MilramRow 89 - Cell 2
91Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) Française des JeuxRow 90 - Cell 2
92Wesley Sulzberger (Aus) Française des JeuxRow 91 - Cell 2
93John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La MondialeRow 92 - Cell 2
94Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Française des JeuxRow 93 - Cell 2
95Benoït Vaugrenard (Fra) Fran&cced