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By Andrew Hood
Oscar Freire (Rabobank) won the battle of the sprinters in Tuesday’s turbo-charged prelude to the Pyrénées, stabbing his wheel ahead of Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) to win stage 9 in a heart-stopping charge to the line. It was the Spanish sprinter’s second stage win of this year’s Tour de France, while Erik Zabel (Milram) snuck past a frustrated Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) to grab third place on the 169.5km stage from Bordeaux to Dax.
“I’ve good and bad memories from finishes like that,” said Freire, referring to other photo finishes in his career. “I had good luck at Milan-San Remo [in 2004)] when Zabel raised his hands too early, and I had some bad memories against [Alejandro] Valverde this spring. Today I wasn’t sure if I had won or not.”
Commissaires had to review the tape, but the three-time world champion’s wheel was a clear two tire-widths ahead of McEwen’s. “I couldn’t get out [of a jam] until the last 100 meters,” McEwen said. “I was almost there. I passed everyone. I was too strong for them.”
It was an exciting, wide-open charge along the flat, finishing straight after the day’s main breakaway of three riders was reeled in with 4km to go. Riders sprang up both sides of the roads, with Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital) trying his luck on the left.
Most traffic was glued on Boonen’s wheel on the right side, after the world champion’s team delivered him to the front too early. Feeling a slight tail wind, Boonen made a long sprint, followed by Zabel, Freire and McEwen, in that order, along the barriers.
Zabel eventually squeezed past the big Belgian’s left shoulder while Freire surged into the middle of the road. Then, with 75 meters to go, McEwen extricated himself from a bad position, swung left through empty real estate to challenge on Freire’s left with an explosive acceleration. The Aussie’s trademark top-end speed almost snagged his fourth win of this Tour.
All four stabbed their bikes at the line at almost the same instant, but Freire cut the tape first.
Asked about Boonen missing yet another stage win, Freire said, “He started his sprint too early. He spent a lot of energy defending the yellow jersey last week. It’s harder for a rider like him to win without a [lead-out] train.”
Freire said the sprints this year are very different without the dominance of a big set-up train in the style of Alessandro Petacchi or Mario Cipollini.
In fact, the spirit of Cipollini hung over Tuesday’s stage. Some pundits predicted that the short course, flat route and prevailing tail winds could add up to a new average speed record for a road stage set by the Lion King in 1999 with 50.355 kph.
The stage was the fastest of this Tour, but Freire’s winning speed of 47.214 kph was well short of Super Mario’s record. Cipollini, who followed Tuesday’s stage in the Liquigas team car, can sleep easy with his mark still safely in the books.
Splits in the peloton
There were some small changes among the favorites as the peloton splintered late in the tricky run-in through Dax — 10 turns in a kilometer through the town followed by a 1km uphill to the final 1500-meter-long straightaway.
Race leader Sergei Gontchar (T-Mobile) finished 32nd in the front group of 84 riders given the same time as Freire. Marcus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) slipped from fifth to ninth after finishing in a group 13 seconds back after the peloton splintered in the charge to the line.
Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) rolled in 1:45 back after being delayed by an unspecified mechanical with about 1.5km to go, but he was given the same time as riders in the back end of the peloton at 26 seconds.
Coming up short
With the prospect of a fast stage, the attacks came quick and early on the road out of Bordeaux. Nothing stuck until Christian Knees (Milram) shot out just 7km into the stage. Quick to chase the tall German were the French pair of Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) and Walter Bénéteau (Bouygues Telecom), who caught Knees 12km later.
Partly cloudy skies kept the temperatures capped in the comfortable range of the low 80s, but it was humid and sticky as the race was pushed south by a strong breeze across the coastal plain between Bordeaux and Pyrenean foothills.
The peloton, still groggy after coming off Monday’s rest day, gave the threesome plenty of rope, as none were a major threat to the overall challengers. Knees was best place, starting the stage in 45th overall, 5:19 behind Gontchar.
Not everyone was pleased with the make-up of the break. Française des Jeux team manager Marc Madiot wanted to have one of his men in the day’s action, but by 40km the gap was already north of seven minutes.
“It was our intention to have a rider in an escape in today’s stage but ideally we wanted five or six riders to be involved,” Madiot told LeTour.fr during the race. “Sebastian Joly tried early but his attack was quickly reeled in by the peloton,”
He added, “The escape has gone now and it’s time for me to kick back in the car and read the newspapers. The best we can hope for now is for the stage to end in a bunch sprint.”
The sprinters’ teams almost left it too late though. Boonen’s Quick Step troops were forced to do most of the chasing, but they found some collaborators from Lampre-Fondital, Crédit Agricole and, probably goaded by Cipollini in the team car, Liquigas.
With 12km to go, there was a pile up at the back of the bunch involving a half-dozen riders, with Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r), Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and David Garcia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) among them.
The gap dropped quickly, and despite some late attacks by Knees, the adventure ended when the three riders reached the streets of Dax, a popular French spa town not far from the Atlantic coast.
Liquigas and Team CSC sent riders to the front on the climb, but Quick Step drove it home over the final 1.5km to set up the sprint for Boonen. Unfortunately, their effort left their team leader stranded at the front too early and remains winless at this Tour.
In contrast, his dexterous arch rival, McEwen, who has already won three stages, almost worked his magic again. “The first part of the Tour could have gone better,” said McEwen, “ I could have won every single stage, But to get to the mountains and not have a finish outside the top five [other than the hilly stage 3 to Valkenburg] and have the green jersey is not bad.”
Certainly not shabby. Now the Aussie along with the rest of the sprinters will give way to the climbers. They’ll all be in the Pyrénées on Wednesday for the 202km stage 10 from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau over three major climbs: the Cat. 3 Col d’Osquich at 50km, the giant hors-cat Col de Soudet at the halfway mark, and the Cat. 1 Col de Marie-Blanque 42km from the finish.