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Caught a soul-destroying 150 metres before the line in Esch sur Alzette yesterday, Matthias Kessler provided the perfect response to that setback with an aggressive late attack on today's stage into Valkenburg that gave him plenty of time to celebrate victory as the sprinters battled with each other for the minor placings.
When time bonuses had been worked out, the yellow jersey changed hands for the third day in a row, as world champion Tom Boonen traded in his rainbow bands for a day at least. He leads Kessler's team-mate Michael Rogers by one second, as the Australian picked up 12 seconds for completing a T-Mobile 1-2 on the stage.
Kessler apart, the main news of the day was of three significant retirements, all apparently due to broken collar-bones. A Tour that has already lost several of its main contenders for extracurricular reasons was deprived of Caisse d'Epargne team leader Alejandro Valverde in much more unfortunate circumstances. The peloton was bearing down on a five-rider break after heading over the fifth of six categorised climbs of the day at Tintelen when the Spaniard went down hard.
A group of his team-mates stopped to help pace Valverde back up to the bunch, but it quickly became clear their assistance would not be needed. The ProTour was taken away to hospital, leaving the race for the overall title looking more open than ever.
Valverde joined Davitamon-Lotto's Fred Rodriguez and Rabobank's Erik Dekker in hospital, this pair having crashed after the third climb of the day. It was a sad way for Dutch hero Dekker to end what is his final Tour, especially as the race had not even reached Dutch soil when he went down. As well as a broken right collar-bone, Dekker also had significant cuts to his face.
At the point Dekker and Rodriguez fell, the bunch was going full bore after an attack launched at the 17km mark by CSC's Jens Voigt. The German was joined by Ag2r's Jos Luis Arrieta, Bouygues' Jerome Pineau, Agritubel's Christophe Laurent and Euskaltel's Unai Etxebarria, who was on the attack for the second time in three days.
They gained a maximum lead of six minutes or so, but it was only 3km from the finish that Arrieta, the last of the escapees, was overhauled as the riders approached the Cauberg, the climb where the Amstel Gold Race finishes. It was no surprise to see another Dutch hero, Michael Boogerd, on the offensive here, but neither the Dutchman nor anyone else could stay with Kessler as he flew up the final hill.
At the top of it, with 2km still to go, his lead useful but more useful still was the disruption in the chase group the final incline produced. Although Boonen and Lampre's Daniele Bennati did stick with the lead chase group, they had few riders around to help them and, unlike yesterday, Kessler was not to be denied.
Stage 3, Esch sur Alzette-Valkenburg
1 Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile 216km in 4.57.54 (43.61kph)
2 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 0.05
3 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Lampre
4 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step
5 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
6 Luca Paolini (Ita) Liquigas
7 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
8 Eddy Mazzoleni (Ita) T-Mobile
9 Georg Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner
10 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner
1 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step-Innergetic 14.52.23
2 Rogers 0.01
3 George Hincapie (USA) Discovery Channel 0.05
4 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole 0.07
5 Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Discovery Channel 0.15
7 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 0.16
8 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d'Epargne 0.17
9 Serhiy Honchar (Ukr) T-Mobile
10 Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile
11 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 0.20
12 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r
13 David Millar (GB) Saunier Duval 0.21
1 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step-Innergetic 67
2 Bennati 66
3 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 65
4 Hushovd 62
1 Jrme Pineau (Fra) Bouygues Telecom 17 pts
2 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval 14
3 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner 12
Best young rider: 1 Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
Best team: Discovery Channel
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