It was apt that the stage four finish on a climb dubbed "the Breton Alpe d'Huez" should see two of the race's best climbers going head to head. After a flurry of attacks on the 1.7km Mûr de Bretagne, Cadel Evans (BMC) prevailed over Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) – but only just.
The gap between them was so narrow that the Spaniard raised an arm in a half-hearted celebration, while the Australian admitted just beyond the finish that, "I couldn't see myself who had won". The photo finish showed a gap about the width of a tyre and a deep-section rim between them, with Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) in third, Sky's Rigoberto Urán fourth and pre-stage favourite Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) fifth.
Evans's BMC team worked hard for the win, even during the opening kilometres of the stage. Initially they ensured a check was kept on the gap between the five-rider break-of-the-day and the peloton. Coming into the finish, their red-and-black jerseys were on the front of the fast-moving peloton as it reached the decisive climb.
The favourites for the stage win watched each other cautiously on the initial ramps of the climb, but Contador, clearly determined to show that he's still a force to be reckoned with, lit the touch paper with a darting attack from 1.4km out. The heavily tipped Gilbert responded, as did Evans, who made a move of his own going under the kilometre banner.
A brief regrouping ended when Gilbert attacked from 500m out, but without the devastating acceleration that had brought him victory on the opening day and was widely expected to do so again. With 300m left, Contador countered, Evans responded and led out the final dash for the line. Contador came again, but too late to deny the Australian his first road stage win at the Tour and his team their first Tour success of any kind.
"I didn't know who had won. I couldn't see myself," Evans admitted moments after the finish. "The final was very tense on small roads and I had to change bikes with 15km to go. Marcus Burghardt is my hero of the day as he took me back up to where I needed to be. This was a real team effort. George [Hincapie] and the other guys won this stage for me. I can't believe that I managed to beat Philippe Gilbert having led him out into a headwind."
Beaming BMC team director John Lelangue described the victory as "a win for the whole team. We've now shown everyone that we're here. In the last 20km we had a bit of a technical problem, but the team showed their strength. We said in the team meeting at the hotel last night and again this morning that we would go for it, that was why we had two riders working within the first 20km of the stage so that the break didn't get 10 minutes up."
Saxo Bank DS Brad McGee admitted that the stage had turned out quite as he had expected. "The attack wasn't planned out like this. We had talked about the opportunity of Alberto going away if he was feeling good, and he definitely showed he has good legs and great morale by attacking like this. It was a very tight sprint decision at the finish but I guess we will have to wait a bit to raise our arms," said McGee.
Evans was denied the yellow jersey as the result of a storming performance from Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo). Although the big Norwegian never looked likely to get the better of the climbing specialists on the run up to the finish, sixth place in the same time as Evans was enough to keep him in yellow for a third day. Hushovd's performance looked even better when it was confirmed that several of the race's big names had lost a handful of seconds at the finish, notably Andy Schleck, although brother Fränk did stay with the stage-winning pace and consequently moved up to third place overall just behind Hushovd and Evans.
How it unfolded
Huge crowds had turned out to cheer the race on its first full day in Brittany, one of the sport's traditional heartlands. Unfortunately, the drizzly conditions didn't match their enthusiasm as the race looped north towards the finish.
After a flurry of early attacks, the break of the day formed after 9km. Jérémy Roy (FDJ), who was in breakaway action on the day one, sparked the move and Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) jump across to join him. Once these five were clear, the peloton's pace eased and their lead rose rapidly to reach almost five minutes after 25km.
BMC and Omega Pharma-Lotto were among the teams that decided that this was too much too soon, and quickly trimmed it back to less than three minutes. Omega Pharma-Lotto continued to do a lot of the initial pace-setting in the bunch, but were set back at the 40km mark when Jurgen Van de Walle became the first rider to abandon the Tour due to injuries sustained in a heavy crash on stage one.
Hoogerland hoovers up
The first break in the ranks of the escapees came on the early slopes of the day's first categorised climb and it was little surprise that the hyper-aggressive Hoogerland made it. The Dutchman jumped away from his four breakaway companions and wasn't challenged as he went on to claim the single point on offer on the Côte de Laz. A few kilometres down the road, Hoogerland underlined his all-round ability by winning the intermediate sprint at Spézet ahead of Roy.
Little more than two minutes behind them, Movistar signalled their desire to defend José Joaquín Rojas's lead in the points competition by setting the pace into the sprint. Coming towards the line, HTC-Highroad moved through to set up Cavendish, but both outfits were outwitted and outsprinted by stage three winner Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo), who nipped through a small gap and cruised clear to take the points for sixth place. Rojas limited his losses to the American by finishing seventh, which later proved enough to keep him in green. Cavendish was beaten for eighth by Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil-DCM).
Omega Pharma-Lotto go to work
From that point, Omega Pharma-Lotto dominated the pace-making, with Germany's Sebastian Lang particularly prominent. Sprinter André Greipel also played his part in chasing down the breakaways.
As the pace went up on wet roads that twisted through dense woodland, the peloton split, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) again caught in the second group having suffered the same fate on stage three. Cadel Evans was also caught out after having a mechanical problem, but a brief chase soon saw these two and the 40-odd riders with them back safely in the main group.
The break's advantage began to tumble when Garmin-Cervélo's Dave Zabriskie moved to the front of the bunch. There was incident at the back of the line, too, as Evans suffered an untimely puncture. His chase to get back on was not helped when a photographer's bike went down in front of him, requiring his BMC teammates to do some frantic pace-making to get him back into the peloton.
Inside the closing 20km, Omega Pharma-Lotto committed themselves fully, with all their riders working for Gilbert, including Jurgen Van den Broeck. The breakaway riders hung on doggedly, but it never looked likely that they would hold on even to the foot of the Mûr de Bretagne.
A finale to please Prudhomme
With their lead at just 40 seconds with 7.5km remaining, Izagirre attacked and the ever-eager Hoogerland went with him. But this last-ditch attempt was in vain. Although Izagirre tried again with 4km left, the BMC line led by George Hincapie was soon upon them as the favourites began to line up for what was sure to be a frantic finale.
Always determined to keep the overall contenders on their guard, race director Christian Prudhomme will be delighted with how today's stage turned out. Not only did it deliver a thrilling finish, but for the second time in four days the main GC contenders were compelled to join the main skirmishing long before they have had a sight of the high mountains.
Evans confirmed: "It was a particular kind of finish with the wind and so on. I'm really pleasantly surprised to win...but I'm here riding for GC. That's my main focus. I've worn the yellow jersey before and I know the feeling that brings, but I'm happy to wait to get that chance again."
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.