By Andrew Hood
Servais Knaven (Quick Step) and nine other riders derailed the sprinters’ chances of snagging another stage win at the Tour de France Thursday as they scampered off in a break just meters from the start of a pancake-flat 180.5km race from Dax to Bordeaux.
This city is typically the domain of the fast-twitch men and the last time the Tour came here in 1999, Tom Steels of Belgium took the mass gallop. But this year a 10-man move scooted up the road moments after the start in Dax, and with Austrian Peter Lüttenberger (CSC) the highest-ranked rider (18th, 26:52 back), no one in the main bunch seemed too interested in squashing the break.
Knaven, the 2001 Paris-Roubaix winner, put everything into a solo move with 18km to go and scored the first Dutch stage victory in this centennial Tour.
“This is my seventh Tour and I’ve always had second place, third place, so it’s nice to finally win a stage,” said Knaven, who came across the line 17 seconds ahead of runner-up Paolo Bossoni (Vini Caldirola). “I don’t win a lot of races, so this means a lot to me.”
Lance Armstrong finished safely at 28th in main bunch, more than eight minutes later, to remain in the yellow jersey with three days left in the Tour.
There was a relaxed mood at the start village in Dax. The Tour left behind the mountains in Wednesday’s stage and riders were looking forward to the final four stages to wrap up the 2003 Tour.
“The Tour is ending well for us,” said Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo, fifth overall, 5:25 back. “The last week of the Tour is always hard, but now there are no more difficult mountain stages remaining. Just the time trial will decide the final positions.”
It didn’t take long for the stage-hunters to come to the fore and riders started jumping in just the first kilometer. Teams fighting for the team classification were sending riders out with every move before 10 men quickly got away.
The 10 riders represented 10 different teams, which helped it become established. They were Vicente Garcia Acosta (ibanesto.com), Bram De Groot (Rabobank), Salvatore Commesso (Saeco), Médéric Clain (Cofidis), Luttenberger, Christophe Mengin (fdjeux.com), Ivan Parra (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Knaven, Leon Van Bon (Lotto-Domo) and Bossoni.
The group quickly chugged away and built up a maximum lead of 16:11 by the 68km mark, when Crédit Agricole helped organize a chase. Rain fell on the Tour for the first time this year with some light showers, but it otherwise remained cloudy and relatively cool throughout the day.
Knaven was the first rider to attack out of the group, peeling away with 18km to go. Parra couldn’t match the acceleration and fell off the back while the others let Knaven move to a 33-second lead with 11km to go.
“It was a long way to attack, but I was riding at 50 kph so I proved I was strongest. My sport director told me to attack, but not to wait too long,” Knaven said.
Green jersey battle
The main bunch came in 8:06 back and the fight was on for the 11th-place points as the battle for the green points jersey entered high gear.
The breakaway gobbled up the sprint points along the course and then spoiled the party for the sprinters, but they still duked it out for the finale. Fdjeux.com gave Baden Cooke a strong lead out, but Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Erik Zabel (Telekom) both shot past him.
“Tomorrow is another stage and I hope to do better. I lost a few points today,” said Cooke, who has held the jersey since stage 7. “There are two stages left for the sprinters and they’re going to be hard stages. The Champs-Élysées is the jackpot. Whoever wins there will probably take the green jersey.”
Six-time green point’s jersey winner Zabel gave himself new life after leading the bunch across the line Wednesday. Cooke’s lead over McEwen was whittled down to six points while Zabel is now third, 12 points back.
The Tour hangs in the balance going into Saturday’s 49km time trial from Pornic to Nantes, a flat rolling course that’s being billed as a clash of the titans. Armstrong and second-place Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) are separated by just 1:07 in the overall standings and both camps believe they can win the stage.
“It’s a course that’s good for both riders,” said U.S. Postal’s team director Johan Bruyneel. “It reminds me of the course at Millhouse two years ago when Lance beat Ullrich. “I think Lance can win.”
Ullrich took out 1:36 on Armstrong in the Tour’s first race against the clock and the German is clinging to an outside chance of dethroning the American. “Wednesday was the last chance to take time out of Armstrong but it was obvious he was strong,” Ullrich said before Thursday’s start. “The Tour will come down to Saturday’s time trial.”
Third-place Alex Vinokourov (Telekom) sits 2:45 back and will likely stay where he is. He’s too far behind Ullrich at 1:37 to expect to move up and he sits a solid 2:31 ahead of fourth-place Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) to feel threatened from behind.
CSC’s Tyler Hamilton is poised to move higher in the GC following his spectacular solo win in Wednesday’s mountain stage. Now sixth overall, Hamilton is just 1:10 behind Mayo and Zubeldia is just 1:19 back.
The Tour continues Friday with the flat 203.5km stage 18 from Bordeaux to St. Maixent-l’École. The sprinters are hungry for a run at a stage win because they haven’t contested a mass gallop since Lyon on stage 6, two weeks ago.
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