Rabobank sprinter Oscar Freire of Spain ended the triumphant victory run of Britain's Mark Cavendish by taking the Tour de France 14th stage in Digne-les-Bains on Saturday.
Australian Cadel Evans retained the leader's yellow jersey one second ahead of Luxembourg's Frank Schleck ahead of Sunday's first day in the Alps.
Freire, a former three-time world champion, is one of several big names to fall victim to the top end speed of the 23-year-old Cavendish during a campaign that has handed the Manxman four stages. But on a baking hot day in the Alpes de Haute Provence, Freire finally did justice to the green jersey he has been wearing for the points competition with a late surge that handed him his fourth career victory in the race.
Colombian Leonardo Duque of Cofidis came second ahead of veteran German sprinter Erik Zabel of Milram.
Cavendish failed to challenge at the end of the 194km stage's home straight having dropped off the back on the day's second climb only 10 km from the finish. That partly allowed Freire to hand his Dutch team their first victory of this year's race, but he was quick to point out it was all his own work.
"Cavendish has been the best sprinter on the race so far, but the fact I won without him today doesn't take anything away from my victory," said Freire, one of the few sprinters to emerge from a country best known for its stage race riders. "I came here to win as many stages as possible and it's great to finally get one. I'm hoping to go for another one or two, and maybe now I can start thinking about holding on to the green jersey."
After battling through the Pyrenees with injuries sustained in a crash, Cadel Evans now approaches Sunday's first day in the Alps having rebuilt strength in an injured shoulder which has left him lop-sided on the bike.
The 31-year-old Australian spent a relatively calm day in the saddle Saturday, although a breakaway composed of 21 riders forced Evans into some early tactical choices, prompting his team to start a chase which eventually reeled the frontrunners in.
Evans's teammate, sprinter Robbie McEwen, was among the riders setting the pace at the front - a rare occasion but one the Aussie said was logical.
"I'm trying to get the guys who are to help me in the mountains there as fresh as possible. It's a long way to Paris and we need to spend our energy wisely in the coming days," said Evans.
A four-man group was then allowed to break free of the original group of 21, but despite reaching a maximum lead of 6min 50sec they were soon chased down by two big sprinters' teams. At the front of the chasing peloton Liquigas and the Milram team of Zabel led the chase, but with 28km to go the leading group disintegrated when former Spanish time trial champion Jose Ivan Gutierrez attacked on his own.
Gutierrez, and prior to that his other three breakaway companions, was eventually reeled in and on the day's second climb the attacks came thick and fast.
The only one which looked promising came from determined Cofidis rider Sylvain Chavanel, but as has happened to the Frenchman several times in the race he was caught shortly before the finish line, with 1.8km to go.
Freire must have thought his Christmas and birthday had come at the same time when he failed to see Cavendish in the bunch sprint, which in the closing stages was being led by the Milram team. The Spaniard popped out from behind Zabel, a former six-time winner of the race's green jersey, to finally throw his hands in the air.
In the process he added 35 points to his points competition tally, taking his total to 219. 2006 winner Thor Hushovd of Norway is second on 172.
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
© AFP 2008