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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
Tour de France archivists found themselves blowing dust off the history books and writing a new chapter after Thor Hushovd became the first Norwegian to claim the yellow leader’s jersey at the end of Monday’s second stage to Namur.
In a crash-filled 197km stage that began in Charleroi, Hushovd’s second place behind Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) was all he needed to take over leadership in the green-jersey points competition, too.
Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), 26, will start Tuesday’s third stage from Waterloo to Wasquehal with an eight-second lead over Swiss Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo), who lost the yellow jersey. McEwen moved into in third overall at 17 seconds.
Though Hushovd has a narrow lead over McEwen in the green-jersey competition, with 68 points to the Australian’s 65, he said he won’t set out Tuesday with the aim of bagging points and time bonuses at intermediate sprints in a bid to defend his lead in both categories.
Instead, after placing fifth, third and second respectively in the prologue and first two stages, he wants to win Tuesday’s leg, which will see the peloton tackle two sectors of Paris-Roubaix pavé.
“I will go 100 percent for the (stage) victory,” he said. “After fifth, third and second places I would like to have that first place.”
Win or not on Tuesday, Hushovd said that his stint in the yellow jersey will be a point of reference for him wherever his career takes him.
“Today I’ve become a big rider,” Hushovd said after donning the prized jersey
Like any racing cyclist before him, Hushovd has dreamed of leading the Tour de France for a long time. “Since I understood what the Tour was,” he said. “So how many years have I been thinking about it? I don’t know …15?”
Hushovd certainly earned his newfound fame. His placings so far merit it alone. But fighting his way back into contention for the stage win, and then taking the yellow jersey to boot, after being caught up in a crash and forced to change bikes in the final 20km was an award-winning effort on its own.
Hushovd praised his Crédit Agricole teammates, who dropped off the peloton to bring him back to the main pack, which was then finally racing at full tilt after a labored start.
“I want to thank the team for their confidence in me since becoming a professional (in 2000),” said Hushovd, who has been enjoying his best-ever season, which includes two stage wins in the Languedoc-Roussilion stage race in France and a couple of French Cup victories.
“I want to thank my team for today. They were there for me. When I got back into the bunch I felt very tired and it would be very hard for me to have go in the sprint. But then, about five minutes before the finish, I felt good again and thought I’d go.”
While Hushovd will start Tuesday’s stage in yellow, his main objective is to step up onto the podium in Paris on July 25 to accept the green jersey that McEwen will wear in his place in the third stage to Wasquehal.
He listed as his fellow favorites for the green as McEwen, Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Italian Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) and Australians Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com) and Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis), his teammate (and rival) last year.
Hushovd said it was difficult last year, being on a team with two riders vying for one jersey, but added that there is pressure this year, too, as his team’s sole contender for the green jersey.
“We are both the same type of riders. So sometimes it was hard,” said Hushovd. “But when he went to Cofidis I had more pressure on me. I had to ride well. And what happened today showed that the whole team can work 100 percent for one guy.”
For McEwen, Monday’s win confirmed his belief, after finishing second to Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R) in Charleroi, that his form is as good as it has been for a Tour.
Break, escape, catch, sprint
The stage itself was something of a procession until the real racing began in the last 40km. It was then that the peloton started to chase a six-man break that escaped after 10km and got a maximum lead of five minutes at the first sprint in Mons at 53km.
In the break were Jerome Pineau (La Boulangere), Jakob Piil (CSC), Sebastian Lange (Gerolsteiner), Christophe Edeleine (Cofidis), Mark Scanlon (AG2R) and Christophe Mengin (Fdjeux.com).
They were caught with about 23km to go, after which the tightly packed peloton continued to suffer more crashes that again left Tour doctor Gerard Porte with a long list of riders needing attention.
The worst injured among nine riders he treated from four falls was Italian Gian Matteo Fagini (Domina Vacanze), who came a cropper with 39km to go. Fagnini was taken to the hospital by ambulance with a probable fracture of the left collarbone.
However, the most spectacular crash came in the last 150 meters, just as the speeding pack negotiated a sweeping, 300-meter-long, left-hand bend that started with 450 meters to go.
The riders to fall 300 meters from the line were Kurt Arveson (CSC) and Jimmy Casper (Cofidis), who both still managed to finish the stage.
However, it was a perfect finish for McEwen. A former BMX rider, McEwen had briefed himself on all the details of any hazardous stage finish in the Tour – this being one of them.
McEwen let loose with his final burst with 200 meters to go, just as the finish line came into his sights.
He burst from the middle of the pack led by Hushovd and charged past every rival to cross the line with arms aloft, nearly six lengths clear of the Norwegian.
McEwen’s fourth Tour stage win carried heavy emotional importance. He dedicated it to former Lotto rider Belgian Stive Vermaut, who died last week of a heart attack after suffering from an arrythymia that halted his career.
“He was buried today,” said McEwen, who shared his dedication with Australian teammate Nick Gates, who injured his knee in a crash on Sunday and was eliminated from the Tour after finishing outside the time limit.
McEwen also passed on his dedication to “all my supporters who will be out on the road tomorrow” at Geraardsbergen, near his Belgian home. “There will be hundreds and thousands of them watching,” he said.
One special fan from Belgium was there to congratulate McEwen Monday – King Albert II.
The king received a kangaroo pin from former Australian sprinter John Trevorrow, whose claim to fame was to have beaten another famous Belgian, Eddy Merckx, in the bunch sprint for 17th place in the Grand Prix des Moules classic in the early 1970s.
A beaming King Albert told McEwen he kept the pin in his pocket and maybe it was a good sign for what was soon to come.