Stage 6 preview: Breakaway riders look to Barcelona's Olympic stadium
Mark Cavendish's domination of the Tour de France bunch sprints is set to come to an end, temporarily at least, on the race's sixth stage which ends at Barcelona's Olympic stadium on Thursday.
A day before the first summit finish of the race at Arcalis in Andorra the Tour heads over more challenging undulating terrain, with an uphill finish likely tempting the peloton's 'punchers'.
A total of five climbs feature on the 181.5km ride from Girona in Spain to Barcelona, although none of those difficulties, ranging in category from three to four, should pose a problem compared to what lies ahead.
Breakaways are a certainty as the course snakes its way down towards the coast, where for the next 50km the peloton will encounter two category four climbs and two intermediate sprints.
Turning inland at Caldes d'Estrac, the most difficult sector ensues with two category three climbs at the 98 and 110km marks, with little chance for respite in between.
Some more forgiving terrain follows before the final climb, rated category four, appears a little under 22km from the finish line.
For those still with something to offer, this could be the occasion for an opportunistic attack that could take them all the way to the finish.
Even if the sprinters' teams manage to contain the breakaway riders before they reach Barcelona the chances of a bunch sprint, of which Columbia sprinter Cavendish has won two so far, are slim.
The road begins to incline as the five kilometres to go mark, but it is with 2km to go, where the road hits a more significant gradient of 6.6 percent for a 500-metre stretch, that the climbers who know how to sprint to the finish are likely to attack.
'Cav' misses out, but tightens green jersey grip
Britain's Mark Cavendish tightened his grip on the Tour de France green jersey on Wednesday despite losing out on the chance to claim a third stage victory on this year's race.
Cavendish, who stylishly won stages two and three from bunch sprints to take his tally on the race to six in three participations, was among those who fell victim to a vicious headwind as the peloton chased down an earlier breakaway.
As Frenchman Thomas Voeckler won the stage for BBox-Bouygues after a successful breakaway, the best Cavendish could do was dominate a massive bunch sprint at the finish line seven seconds later.
As well as reminding his sprint rivals he is the boss, the 24-year-old Isle of Man rider's third place added 26 points to his tally in the points competition to take his total to 96.
His closest rival is Norway's former green jersey champion Thor Hushovd of Cervelo, who has 70 points having picked up only 16 Wednesday because of his 10th place finish.
In third behind Hushovd is American Tyler Farrar, of Garmin, on 54 while German Gerald Ciolek, of Milram, is fourth on 42.
After the first successful breakaway in windy conditions, Cavendish's team boss at Columbia, Bob Stapleton, hit out at the lack of contribution from some of the sprinters' teams.
"He (Cavendish) is doing a great job, there is a lot of negative racing out there," said Stapleton.
"People seem to be afraid of Mark and want us to do the maximum amount of work while they do the minimum and that showed when they didn't quite catch him today."
Stapleton even suggested that some of their sprint rivals are not working so they can try to catch Columbia out later in the race when the accumulation of efforts begins to take its toll.
"I think so, he has consistently beaten the best and I think their hope is that over the course of the Tour they can tire us out and tire him out," he added.
"There is a good chance that tactic won't work."
Thursday's sixth stage is a 181.5km ride over undulating terrain from Gerona to Barcelona which should favour a breakaway and is most likely not to end in a bunch sprint, where most points can be earned.
On Friday the first of three difficult days in the Pyrenees should humble the sprinters and the green jersey contenders, and put their rivalries to the side as they club together on the climbs in a bid to simply survive.
He added: "We will try to pick some stages for our other riders in the Pyrenees, I think Michael Rogers and Kim (Kirchen) will have their chances.
"Mark will conserve his energy and wait for a day which suits him better.
"He is in very good shape and, barring illness, I think he will have a very good Tour and make his way to the Champs d'Elysees, which is his goal."
Rabobank pull injured Gesink out of Tour
The teams of Tour de France contenders Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov suffered further setbacks during the race's fifth stage on Wednesday.
On the descent of the Cote de Treilles as the peloton upped the pace in chase of a six-man breakaway, 23-year-old Dutchman Robert Gesink crashed and picked up injuries to his wrist and left leg.
He was later diagnosed with a fractured wrist and pulled out of the race by his Rabobank team, who have been left reeling with the relative demise of their yellow jersey contender Menchov.
Evans' teammate Staf Scheirlinckx had earlier crashed into a ditch next to Frenchman Stephane Auge near the 100km mark, both riders getting back on their bikes to continue.
Barely a minute later Australian Matthew Lloyd, who is set to help Evans in the upcoming mountains stages, flirted with disaster when he came down near an intermediate sprint next to Austrian Bernhard Eisel of Columbia.
Both Scheirlinckx and Lloyd got back on their bikes and finished the stage and afterwards the Tour's official doctor signalled no injuries.
The withdrawal of Gesink, who was racing his first Tour, is a severe blow for Rabobank after a poor team time trial performance on Tuesday left Menchov nearly four minutes behind race leader Fabian Cancellara, and Lance Armstrong.
Hurt, but getting back on his bike, two of Gesink's Rabobank's teammates slowed to help him get back to the peloton, which minutes later made their job even harder by forcing an echelon.
Gesink had blood dripping from both his arm and leg and appeared to be struggling to hold the left side of his handlebars as the pace of the chasing peloton split the bunch into several sections.
Menchov, the recent Tour of Italy winner, was left in a second peloton behind all the favourites and had to battle hard to rejoin the chasing bunch in a bid to avoid losing further time.
Gesink eventually finished in second to last place, at nearly 10 minutes behind the peloton.
Evans down, but not out as mountains approach
Cadel Evans admitted Wednesday he is still getting used to being so far behind in the race for the Tour de France yellow jersey before the race's crucial mountains stages have even started.
Australia's two-time runner-up stayed out of trouble on Wednesday's tricky and wind-hit stage from Cap d'Agde to Perpignan, in which Silence teammate Matthew Lloyd escaped, unhurt, from a spill mid-race.
Evans now goes into Thursday's sixth stage from Gerona to Barcelona in Spain 2min 59sec down on race leader Fabian Cancellara and second-placed Lance Armstrong.
But despite his significant deficit to key rivals ahead of three days in the Pyrenees mountains, beginning Friday, Evans says the Tour is far from over.
"I've never been in this position at the Tour de France ahead of the mountains stages, so we'll see what happens," said Evans, who finished runner-up in both 2007 and 2008.
"But I'm feeling good. The Tour is not over for me yet."
The Australian admitted nevertheless that another windy day of racing, in which accelerations from Astana, Saxo Bank and Columbia made it an uncomfortable for some, had tested him yet again.
On stage three, a turn of pace by Columbia dropped Evans and many favourites behind, while benefiting Armstrong, who on the day up seven places to third overall, by 41secs.
"It was a horrible day," added Evans referring to Wednesday's stage. "There were a lot of narrow roads, a lot of people and shouting and we had to stay really concentrated all day.
"I'm happy I'm still here."
Lloyd said later: "I don't know how I crashed. The roads were narrow, but that's racing and that's the Tour.
"But I'm okay, I feel 100 percent."
Broken arm forces Dutchman Rooijakkers out of Tour
Dutch cyclist Piet Rooijakkers withdrew from the 2009 Tour de France on Wednesday and missed the day's fifth stage to Perpignan after a seven-hour operation to repair a broken forearm.
The 28-year-old Skil-Shimano rider was the victim of a heavy fall during Tuesday's team time trial around Montpellier which left him with a badly fractured arm and a head injury. He underwent surgery on Tuesday night.
Earlier in the Tour, Rooijakkers was involved in an altercation with green-jersey holder Mark Cavendish on Sunday's second stage when the Dutchman accidentally struck the British sprint star.
The Dutchman became the second rider forced to leave this year's race after Belgium's Quick Step rider Jurgen van de Walle suffered a broken collarbone on the second stage and withdrew on Monday.
Lance Armstrong: I've nothing to hide from testers
Seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong insisted he has nothing to hide after being routinely drugs tested immediately after finishing Wednesday's fifth stage in Perpignan.
Cancer-survivor Armstrong was whisked away by officials immediately after Frenchman Thomas Voeckler handed the host country their first reason to celebrate on this year's Tour when he claimed his maiden victory.
Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara retains the race leader's yellow jersey with a 0.22sec lead over Armstrong ahead of Thursday's sixth stage from Gerona to Barcelona in Spain.
Meanwhile the American insisted he takes every drugs test in his stride.
"There is nothing to find - I am not stupid," insisted Armstrong, who has faced unfounded allegations of doping throughout his career.
"Another anti-doping control again, I have lost count of the number of times. It's no problem if you have to go to testing straight after the finish, it's not too bad. I was only five minutes later (getting back to the team bus) than I would have been anyway."
Armstrong had set the Tour's agenda in the previous two days with a strong finish on Monday's third stage and then helping lead his Astana team to victory on Tuesday's team time trial to come within a whisker of Cancellara's jersey.
Armstrong and his team were again at the forefront on the 196.5km ride from Cap d'Agde to Perpignan as the efforts of Astana and several other teams, in testing wind conditions, threatened leaving some of their rivals further behind.
"It was an interesting day," said Armstrong. "Everyone anticipated the wind and knew that part of France is very windy and they knew what happened two days ago, so everyone was more switched on."
Voeckler, who wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004, launched an attack in the first kilometres of the stage which led to six riders building a lead of around 10 minutes on the bunch.
In the final 4.8km, the peloton left it too late to close the gap and Voeckler stunned the three remaining breakaway companions after he dropped down a gear and launched an unassailable drive for the finish.
Armstrong added: "Who would have thought they would get apart and then we'd come back together and that we wouldn't catch that break?
"To me it was an odd day in terms of the overall result. I just stayed out of trouble and the (Astana) guys looked good."
But Armstrong gave a subtle dig to Astana's official team leader Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour winner, who spent part of Wednesday's race riding on the back of Armstrong's wheel.
"I told Alberto before the race that today was going to be complicated, so maybe he sees that I know what is going on in the Tour de France," said Armstrong with a smile.
Schumacher's failed drugs test confirmed by B sample
The positive test of German cyclist Stefan Schumacher for EPO Cera during last year's Olympic Games has been confirmed by the B sample, his lawyer Michael Lehner said on Tuesday.
The 27-year-old rider, however, continues to protest his innocence and is determined to clear his name.
Lehner said they are contesting in particular the circumstances under which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) analysed the B sample in a laboratory of the French anti-doping agency (AFLD).
Schumacher was one of six athletes who the IOC announced had tested positive for banned-blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) CERA in Beijing after samples were re-tested.
Having already tested positive twice for EPO CERA at the 2008 Tour de France, where he won two stages, Schumacher received a two-year ban from the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, in February this year.
The German denies having ever doped and on April 1 took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne who will judge the case on Wednesday.
© AFP 2009