South African Robert Hunter of the Barloworld team won a wind-battered 11th stage of the Tour de France Thursday after 182km of drama-filled racing between Marseille and Montpellier.
The 30-year-old won a sprint finish just ahead of Swiss Fabian Cancellara with Brazilian Murilo Fischer third to claim his, South Africa's and his continent's first ever win on the race.
"I don't think I could be any happier," said Hunter, who came round the bend at the 245 metres marker and began his drive to the finish line almost immediately. "It's a massive victory for me, and for South Africa."
Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, of Rabobank, kept his overall lead over his main rivals intact ahead of Friday's 12th stage from Montpellier to Castres.
On a day that provided the perfect conditions for some tactical racing, Rasmussen and the other four top-placed riders managed to escape being snared by a cunning move executed to perfection by Alexandre Vinokourov's Astana team. Ag2r team leader Christophe Moreau, who is aiming to finish in the top three overall, however fell victim, finishing the stage over three minutes down to take a significant drop in the general classification.
The big Frenchman had crashed early in the stage alongside Ag2r teammate Simon Gerrans, and that setback - leaving Moreau with cuts and grazes to his thighs - later appeared to have been noted by a vengeful Astana. Moreau had been the protagonist of a series of attacks on last Saturday's first stage in the high Alps which left Vinokourov, already struggling with a knee injury, trailing the yellow jersey favourites.
On Thursday, payback time came in the shape of Astana using the coastal crosswinds to split the main chasing peloton, leaving Moreau in their wake. Astana were given a hand by Discovery Channel and Barloworld in driving hard at the front from the 71km to go mark. Moreau was well and truly trapped, and the French champion finished the race dropping from sixth overall to 14th.
"I broke one of my cleats in my crash and had to change my shoe. I had to make a decision, and it was just at the wrong time," explained Moreau. "You get days like that, but the Tour is far from over. It could have been worse, I might have picked up a fracture."
He is now 6:38 behind Rasmussen, who said later that everyone knew the stage was going to be tough. "If you were to ask Moreau he would agree, it was a very fast stage," said Rasmussen, who is still 2:35 ahead of Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and 2:41 in front of Australian Cadel Evans. "I think he (Moreau) definitely lost the chance of winning the Tour today."
The Dane said that Astana's determined racing had sent a defiant signal to the yellow jersey contenders. "It just shows that even though Astana are not dominating the general classification, they've not given up yet. We're a long way to Paris. "
Earlier, Britain's David Millar managed to escape the peloton and join a four-man group but despite building a lead of 7min 20sec at the 72 mark their the chasing peloton caught them with 38km to go.
Vinokourov's earlier decision to up the pace - and effectively leave Moreau trailing - did not necessarily benefit the Kazakh, whose yellow jersey hopes are still hanging by the thinnest of threads. Ahead of Saturday's 54km time trial in Albi, and then three days in the Pyrenees beginning Sunday, Vinokourov is still over eight minutes behind Rasmussen.
Astana team manager Marc Biver appears to be still undecided as to who his real team leader is. Germany's Andreas Klöden is the better placed of the two, in seventh overall at 3:50 behind Rasmussen.
However, it was Vinokourov who ordered the beginning, and the end of Astana's sudden increase in tempo. And Biver said: "Today he (Vinokourov) showed that his knee injury is getting better. It's a good sign for the time trial and the Pyrenees.
"He showed he's a champion, that his determination is intact."
© AFP 2007