French veteran Cedric Vasseur gave the hosts their first victory of this year's Tour de France when he beat compatriot Sandy Casar by a wheel rim on the 229.5km 10th stage in Marseille Wednesday.
The 36-year-old Vasseur, riding his 10th and final Tour with the Quick Step team, won a tight sprint finish after 5hr 20min 24sec of racing under the sweltering heat from Tallard ahead of Casar. Swiss rider Michael Albasini of Liquigas finished a bike length back in third.
It was the second stage win for Vasseur and comes ten years after his victory in 1997 at La Chatre when he wore the yellow jersey for five days. "It's a great gift," said Vasseur, whose victory means Quick Step now have three stage wins on this year's race. "It was the 10th stage on my 10th Tour and this morning a close friend told me that this was going to be my day.
"I knew a breakaway would form, and I was just lucky that I got into the right one. Once we'd got a good gap on the peloton I started to think maybe it would be my day."
Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, of the Rabobank team, retained the race lead - and confirmed that he, and not his struggling teammate Denis Menchov, is now their yellow jersey hope.
"It was difficult at the start because it was very fast," said Rasmussen, perhaps referring to the 48.3km raced in the first hour. "After the breakaway went we controlled things at the back, but now the team is ready to defend the lead all the way to Paris."
Rasmussen will begin his third day in the yellow jersey on Thursday's 11th stage with his advantage on most of his rivals intact after the main peloton finally allowed an 11-man breakaway group to finish the race unhindered. It was the first time a breakaway has succeeded on a non-mountain stage of this year's race, although that was perhaps symptomatic of the peloton's fatigue after three tough days in the Alps.
Germany's Marcus Burghardt was the instigator after the race's first small climb at 57km, although the big T-Mobile rider, who crashed on Tuesday when a dog ran into his path, again missed out on contending the stage win. He initially built a small lead, was caught by a 10-man group at the 81km mark and they went on to build a 14-minute lead on the bunch after 127km.
The peloton - upon hearing that news - were shamed into action but despite reducing the gap to 10 minutes the lure of the finish line caused a split in the leading group, and pushed the peloton even further back. A five-man group including Germany's Jens Voigt, a former stage winner, Vasseur, Casar, Albasini and Halgand pulled away and they broke clear to go on and contend the stage.
Vasseur admitted his victory was partly down to Voigt. "I knew Voigt was one of the strongest in the bunch, so I followed his wheel. In fact, he brought me back on the last climb when I was starting to feel the fatigue," added Vasseur.
"It was a long hot day, and difficult," said Halgand, who tried to shake off his companions on the race's final two climbs. "I did everything I could to drop them but the final climbs just weren't hard enough."
With 10km to race down towards Marseille, and three Frenchman in the five-man group, the hosts' victory drought looked destined to end. Vasseur was particularly calm in the closing kilometres, but with the four other riders busy watching each other, he surged up the right hand side and took a decisive lead.
Vasseur was given a run for his money in the two-man race for the line, but for Casar - who simply ran out of road - second place was still not enough. "I didn't win the stage, so obviously I did something wrong," said Casar, who is still looking for his first Tour stage win. "But don't worry. The Tour isn't over yet."
© AFP 2007