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A successful break: O’Grady wins; Voeckler in yellow

A new yellow jersey in French champion Thomas Voeckler and a thrilling stage win by Australian Stuart O'Grady gave the fifth stage of the Tour de France plenty for fans to talk about even as the overall contenders, like overnight leader Lance Armstrong, happily took a back seat for the day. Voeckler (Brioches La Boulangere) and O'Grady (Cofidis) were in Thursday's delightfully successful five-man breakaway, which formed at the 12km mark after a flurry of early attacks. The quintet then spent the next 188km racing into a bitingly cold cross/head wind and through often-torrential rain. The

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

The break drives along well ahead of the peloton...

The break drives along well ahead of the peloton…

Photo: AFP

Voeckler in yellow: A promising career ahead for the 24-year-old French Champion?

Voeckler in yellow: A promising career ahead for the 24-year-old French Champion?

Photo: Graham Watson

A new yellow jersey in French champion Thomas Voeckler and a thrilling stage win by Australian Stuart O’Grady gave the fifth stage of the Tour de France plenty for fans to talk about even as the overall contenders, like overnight leader Lance Armstrong, happily took a back seat for the day.

Voeckler (Brioches La Boulangere) and O’Grady (Cofidis) were in Thursday’s delightfully successful five-man breakaway, which formed at the 12km mark after a flurry of early attacks. The quintet then spent the next 188km racing into a bitingly cold cross/head wind and through often-torrential rain.

The stage from Amiens in the Somme to Chartres, southwest of Paris, saw the group fend off the peloton by nearly 13 minutes, more than enough to put the yellow jersey on the shoulders of the 24-year-old Voeckler, who began the day in 59th place, three minutes behind U.S. Postal’s Armstrong. The Texan finished in the main bunch and is now sixth overall at 9:35 to Voeckler — a far more comfortable position, as he is now unlikely to carry the pressure of race leadership until the Pyrénées.

For Voeckler, the Alsace-born and Martinique-raised former member of the VC Nantes amateur team, Thursday capped an incredible month that has seen him earn the French national champion’s jersey.

Voeckler’s nearest overall challengers are O’Grady, second at 3:13, and third-placed Frenchman Sandy Casar (Fdjeux.com) at 4:06. But when the race hits the mountains, Armstrong may find himself with a bit more of a fight than he might have expected. Voekler can climb, as he showed in last month’s Route de Sud, winning the mountain stage to Loudenvielle, and will surely have a passionate French public’s support.

Also in the breakaway with Voeckler, O’Grady and Casar were Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt (Alessio), and Dane Jakob Piil (CSC).

It was a handy escape for O’Grady for a number of reasons. The first was the meaning behind his second career Tour stage victory, which came in a nail-biting sprint, just as the first one did at Grenoble in 1998.

After all the woes he and his Cofidis team have endured this season, due to the police investigation into drug trafficking that involves several of its former and current team members, O’Grady set out pledging to “start a new Tour” – and he clearly fulfilled his avowed mission.

“This win today is one I will never, never forget,” said O’Grady. `’The feeling of crossing the line first today means a lot more than any other victory. For all the hard and tough times I have been through in the last couple of months … yeah, it’s just been an emotional roller coaster.”

Not only was O’Grady the best rated sprinter in the group, but the day-long adventure off the front offered him vital points for the green-jersey competition, in which he has placed second three times.

A rider who lacks the top-end speed of the best bunch sprinters, O’Grady knew he would have to attack and then pick up points at intermediate sprints to have any chance of finally winning the green jersey. He began the stage 10th in the points competition, with 32 points to fellow Australian Robbie McEwen’s 93, then won each of the three intermediate sprints to collect another 18 points, plus 35 for winning the stage.

The bold move saw him move up to sixth place with 85 points. McEwen still leads the green-jersey competition with 113 points, having added to his tally by winning the bunch sprint for sixth place.

The Voeckler-O’Grady group’s maximum lead was 17:20 at 135km, but by 139km it had started to fall — yet it quickly became clear that the five were never in danger of being caught. In their wake was a peloton that had suffered after splitting early into two groups and once more saw many riders succumb to crashes.

It seemed like everyone crashed at one time or another

It seemed like everyone crashed at one time or another

Photo: Graham Watson

Among the 12 victims of a crash at 102km were four of Armstrong’s teammates: Portugal’s Jose Azevedo, plus the Spanish trio of Jose Luis Rubiera, Manuel Beltran and Benjamin Noval. The latter may have been wondering what else could possibly go wrong in this Tour – Noval was the lone Postal rider dropped in the team time trial, and this latest spill was his third crash in four days.

Another noted name who found himself on the ropes today was Australian Brad McGee (Fdjeux.com) who abandoned at about 110km. McGee, suffering with back and pelvic injuries, was off the back early with Frenchman Maryan Hary (Boulangere). His decision to stop was only wise, considering he still plans to race next month’s Olympic Games in the pursuit.

In a later crash, one of the principal victims was Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) who was taken for X-rays on his shoulder, which he later said had popped out.

With the rain falling and strong winds constantly blowing, the peloton was wary of taking any further risks by starting a chase that nobody really needed. The sprinters’ teams knew they still have up to seven winning opportunities ahead of them. And as for Armstrong, after the crash at the 102km mark, the Postal leader sent his team forward to set a very moderate tempo, sending a clear message to the rest of the peloton that the patron would not tolerate a dangerous chase on wet and windy roads.

That the five stage leaders stayed away was also testimony to the effort they made and their commitment to sharing the huge workload until the final 12km, when the stage reached its climax in a flurry of attacks, nine in all.

Bäckstedt launched the initial assault, but he was soon retrieved by Piil. Then came a series of attacks from Voeckler (5), Piil (2), O’Grady (1), before they were all in place for the finish with only one slightly uphill kilometer to go.

Postal moved to the front and kept the pace under control

Postal moved to the front and kept the pace under control

Photo: Graham Watson

Bäckstedt was the first to drop back, but then he returned to come past his close friend and former Crédit Agricole teammate, O’Grady, who had already began his sprint and jumped on the Swede’s wheel with about 200 meters to go.

Nothing could have been more pleasing to see for O’Grady than the image of Bäckstedt in front, towing him so close to the line. Although, for O’Grady, after all the hardship of the past week on and off the saddle, there was no need to look for extra motivation or help. He already had plenty of it – in his heart, his legs and his mind.

There was now no way the stage result would read any way but: O’Grady, first; Piil, second; and Casar, third.

And it didn’t.


Results are posted. To see how the stage developed, check out our LIVE UPDATE Window.

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