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By Neal Rogers
Wednesday’s 232km stage from Cholet to Chatearoux might have been the fifth stage of this 2008 Tour de France, but in many respects it was a day of firsts.
It was the first hot, sunny day of a Tour that began in the rain and cold winds of Brittany — weather that seemed to follow the peloton wherever it traveled.
Stage 5 was the first day spent in the malliot jaune for Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher, an unlikely hero who seems as surprised as everyone else to find himself leading the world’s biggest bike race.
The finish in Chatearoux was the first field sprint of this Tour, won by Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, who took the first of what appears to be many Tour stage wins of his promising young career. The win doubled as the first Tour stage win for the newly re-branded Team Columbia, whose Kim Kirchen came agonizingly close three times in the first four stages.
Cavo’s victory came, in part, courtesy of two of the race’s jersey wearers — Kirchen, who started the day in the green points jersey, and Thomas Lovkvist, who wears the white jersey of the best young rider. Both men sacrificed themselves to keep the pace high and deliver the young Manxman to the line ahead of three-time world champion Oscar Freire and six-time green jersey Erik Zabel.
“This is my eighth victory this year and I ?had 11 last year,” Cavendish said. “It was only a Tour victory I was still to achieve. It’s the race you dream of ever since you’re a child. Now I’ve done it.”
For some, Wednesday’s stage was also a day of firsts — relating not to success, but to heartbreak.
It was the final day of the Tour for Colombian Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), who fell in the neutral zone prior to the start and succumbed to the pain of a wrist fractured during stage 1. With his departure went hopes of another stage win for the South American nation.
The day also ended in agony for French national champion Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel), who attacked out of his three-man breakaway in the final 1500 meters only to be caught by the peloton 50 meters from the finish line. It was the second time in four stages that a breakaway consisted of all French riders, and the most dramatic last-minute catch in recent memory. Vogondy didn’t take the win, but he surely died by his sword.
Wednesday’s stage will likely produce more firsts, as Columbia aims to take the yellow jersey with three riders — Kirchen, Lovkvist and Hincapie — in the top eight overall, all within 41 seconds of Schumacher. Hincapie has worn yellow once in his career — for one day, in 2006.
Garmin-Chipotle also hopes to take the yellow jersey for the first time in its first Tour, with both David Millar and Christian Vande Velde sitting in the top six, both within 37 seconds of Schumacher. Millar last wore the jersey after the prologue of his first Tour, in 2000.
Schumacher has declared to fight to defend the jersey until the race reaches the mountains. Whether or not Thursday will be another day of firsts remains to be seen.