Lampre-Farnese Vini rider Alessandro Petacchi attributed his win in Stage 4 of the Tour de France in Reims yesterday to the timing of his move, which saw him taking his second stage victory of this year’s Tour and the sixth of his career.
Unlike on Sunday in Brussels, however, when a series of crashes, one involving HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, disrupted the race inside the closing couple of kilometres, this time the sprint was a keenly fought contest with a number of big names vying for position as the line approached.
The 36-year-old Italian told the Gazzetta dello Sport afterwards that the timing of his run to the line had been decisive. “I knew that if [Mark] Cavendish or [Thor] Hushovd went off, it would be hard to catch the," explained Petacchi.
"I saw the board for 300 metres to go and I went, I’d have gone into the lead with 250 left. I pulled off a great sprint,” he added. “When the road rises, either you stay where you are, or you fly.”
There was frustration for HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, however, who is still looking for his first stage win of this year’s race to add to the ten he has won over the past two year’s.
Expertly delivered by HTC-Columbia’s lead-out train, headed by Mark Renshaw, to the front of the race as the line neared, Cavendish, unbeatable from that position 12 months ago, could not deliver and he knew it, saying afterwards: “I'm disappointed about today. I felt really good during the stage. I feel sorry for my team-mates who rode unbelievably and I just didn't finish it off at the end."
With Hushovd coming in 9th and Cavendish 12th, there are now 62 points in the green jersey classification separating the pair, which the Norwegian leads with 80 points, ten ahead of Petacchi.
Erik Zabel, Cavendish’s mentor at HTC-Columbia in the art of sprinting and himself a six-time winner of the maillot vert, conceded afterwards that the gap was too big for Cavendish to bridge.
"I was behind, 20 points, 25 maximum. But it's an unspoken rule in the Tour that you can miss one stage, be 30, 35 points behind and it's still no problem because the (other) sprinters can have some bad luck," the German told AFP, adding, “but now, 62 points, it's a lot."
Zabel continued: "Realistically, Thor Hushovd is strong and he's also a smart guy so he knows how to protect his jersey. Now they've got a stage win, and the green jersey, they can sit back a bit.
After stating that other sprinters such as Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar and Milram’s Gerald Ciolek faced a similar uphill struggle to close the gap on Hushovd, Zabel concluded: “You never know in the Tour. Even Thor can make a mistake or have bad luck, but realistically those chances are low."
Hushovd, however, saw no room for complacency as he seeks to retain the points jersey, saying that the race for the green jersey was only just beginning, and said that the efforts of winning on Stage 3’s Paris-Roubaix cobbles had taken their toll. “I wanted to do better, but I missed the power in the sprint today,” said the Cervélo TestTeam rider.
“It’s the fatigue of the efforts from the past three days catching up with me, especially from yesterday. Also, today was our first day in the heat, and I don’t do real well in the heat, so I was suffering all day. I was too early in the front in the sprint. I was on the wheel of Cavendish, but Petacchi started a long sprint, and I had to start my sprint again. He was faster today, so chapeau.”
Despite yesterday’s disappointment, the Norwegian saw opportunities to pick up more points in the days ahead. “I have good legs, he said. “I think I can do what I did last year and pick up some points in the medium mountain stages. Of course I want to win the green jersey again, but first I want to win another stage.”
However, he cautioned: “The fight to the green jersey is just starting. I have to take it day by day and try to pick up points when I can.”
With Tyler Farrar still nursing a fractured hand, it fell to New Zealander Julian Dean to shoulder the burden of contesting the sprint for Garmin-Transitions yesterday, and the Kiwi, taken to hospital for checks after Monday’s Stage 2, almost pulled off a win, coming in second to Petacchi.
“I was a bit surprised, you never start out after being in the hosptial two days ago thinking you're going to do that,” said Dean afterwards.
“I'm over the moon to achieve this but wish I was 100 percent for the sprint. I feel like maybe I could have won. But that said I'm really proud of what the team's acheived - fourth yesterday and second and fifth today. Despite the loss of Christian [Vende Velde, who abandoned after Monday’s stage] and Tyler being on the back foot, we have a competitive team and we're here to race,” he added.
Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen finished strongly behind Dean to claim third place yesterday, with Team Principal Dave Brailsford saying on his blog, “It all went absolutely to plan today; stay out of trouble, not be in the break, and basically just let Edvald have a look at the end. And Edvald did a terrific job there to take third place so we're very happy with the way it panned out.”
Today’s Stage 5 is another sprinter-friendly affair, covering 187.5 kilometres from Eparnay to Montargis as the race heads into the heart of France. One rider not starting the stage, however, is Euskaltel’s Amets Txurruka, who had abandoned the race after breaking a collarbone yesterday.
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