Australian Robbie McEwen shrugged off a crash to produce a trademark burst of power which sealed victory on the first stage of the Tour de France held over 203km from London to Canterbury on Sunday.
Swiss racer Fabian Cancellara of CSC, the winner of Saturday's prologue, retained the race leader's yellow jersey with a 13sec advantage over Astana's Andreas Klöden. Britain's David Millar, one of the protagonists in an early five-man breakaway, moved up to third place overall at 21sec and managed to pull on the best climbers' polka dot jersey.
It was Predictor-Lotto sprinter McEwen, however, who stole the show. As a bunch sprint closed in on the historic Kent town the Milram team of aging sprint great Erik Zabel and Tom Boonen's Quick Step outfit were leading the dance.
However their superiority in numbers had fizzled out with 400 metres to go, leaving Zabel with little chance. "I don't really know what happened to us in the end," he told AFP.
McEwen didn't stop to find out. With the adrenaline buzzing after he fought off his crash, he finished his rivals off by hitting the accelerator in the final 150 metres. Thor Hushovd of Norway and Belgian star Boonen finished in that order at over a bike length behind, and McEwen came over the finish in triumph.
The Aussie now has 12 stage victories from the race, meaning he has equalled a long-held achievement of Zabel, who until Sunday held the 'record' of having the most stage wins (12) on the Tour for an active rider.
"This is definitely one of the best ones ever," said a delighted McEwen. "I hurt my wrist in the crash but the boys brought me back into the bunch. I still can't believe I won this stage, but I owe a big thank you to my team mates."
McEwen also pulled on the points classification's green jersey, of which he has three already, and leads 2005 winner Hushovd by five points.
This stage had sprint finish written all over it, but the breakaway went early. Millar, who had enjoyed the crowds shouting his name in English during the 7.9km prologue, made the most of the second of two days in England by escaping early on with another four riders.
They worked well together, but after 105km of racing - during which the CSC team of race leader Cancellara had done most of the work controlling the pace at the front of the peloton - the sprinters' teams took over. The leading group's maximum lead of 6:04 with 95km to race began to drop, and over the next 40km they were gradually reeled in.
"I wanted to do something," said Millar, appearing with a wry smile on his face after pulling on the red and white polka dot jersey. "I remember at the Tour in 1994 I was a kid and queued up in Brighton by the barriers for four hours for the race to come through. Two riders came through, then 10 minutes later (Chris) Boardman attacked off the front. And I remember that made my whole day, seeing Boardman off the front.
"So today I thought, 'you know what, I'm just going to go on a suicide mission. And it ended up being productive, which is a real bonus."
As the stage finale approached, another Briton, Manxman Mark Cavendish, fell victim to a crash, severely denting his chances of trying to get in the mix for what would have been an historic sprint victory. Milram sprinter Brett Lancaster of Australia also came crashing down in the accident which took down McEwen, hurting his back after colliding with a traffic beacon in the middle of the road. Lancaster, however, was delighted to have finished after revealing that he almost didn't start because of a stomach bug which kept him awake most of the night.
Cancellara will get to keep the race lead another day, and he admitted being impressed by the hordes of people who had turned up to watch them race. "It was a great stage leaving from London, even more so because I was in the yellow jersey," said the Swiss. "The crowd was huge, I've never seen it like that on the Tour."
Monday's second stage from Dunkirk to Ghent is held over 168.5km of mainly flat terrain. But the likely crosswinds could tempt the likes of Millar, and a few others who are not too far behind Cancellara, into going in search of the yellow jersey.
© AFP 2007