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A look ahead: Who can beat Boonen?

With more than 80 riders now at least five minutes behind new race leader Lance Armstrong, there’s a good chance that a breakaway will succeed Wednesday on stage 5 of the Tour de France. That’s the theory, but in a year when the opportunities for field sprints are limited the fast men should again prevail. Going into this 183km stage, QuickStep’s Tom Boonen is two for two in the field sprints, partly thanks to his main rival, Robbie McEwen of Davitamon-Lotto, making a hash of his sprint on stages 2 and 3. McEwen is unlikely to make a mistake a third time running, so expect a much tighter

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By John Wilcockson

With more than 80 riders now at least five minutes behind new race leader Lance Armstrong, there’s a good chance that a breakaway will succeed Wednesday on stage 5 of the Tour de France. That’s the theory, but in a year when the opportunities for field sprints are limited the fast men should again prevail.

Going into this 183km stage, QuickStep’s Tom Boonen is two for two in the field sprints, partly thanks to his main rival, Robbie McEwen of Davitamon-Lotto, making a hash of his sprint on stages 2 and 3. McEwen is unlikely to make a mistake a third time running, so expect a much tighter battle at Montargis.

This stage has one of the event’s most beautiful starting areas, as Chambord is the largest of the Loire Valley châteaux and one of world’s finest Renaissance buildings. The stage is over rolling roads that generally head eastward, with crosswinds likely on a 40km stretch along the Loire River before a final with-the-wind swoop into Montargis.

The Tour has only once ended a stage in Montargis, in 1969, when it was the terminus of a giant 10-hour, 330km slog from Clermont-Ferrand on the penultimate day. The winner was Belgium’s Herman Van Springel, who also won that year’s stage over the mighty Galibier Pass in the Alps.

But the climbers won’t be in the picture Wednesday. Besides Boonen and McEwen, the other sprinters showing rising form in this first week of the Tour are Aussies Stuart O’Grady of Cofidis and Allan Davis of Liberty Seguros, Norwegian Thor Hushovd of Crédit Agricole, and the surprising Austrians Peter Wrölich of Gerolsteiner and Bernhard Eisel of Française des Jeux.

Whether any of them can beat the inspired Boonen is unlikely, but watching them try should be exciting.