Frenchman Sandy Casar picked himself up after crashing into a stray dog to finally end his victory drought on the Tour de France, winning the 18th stage over 211 km on Friday.
Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador retained the yellow jersey with a 1min 50sec lead on Australian Cadel Evans, and 2:49 on his American teammate Levi Leipheimer. Contador, Evans and Leipheimer will each go into Saturday's penultimate but decisive stage, a relatively flat 55.km time trial from Cognac to Angoulême, with a chance of winning the race's yellow jersey.
It was partly for that reason - keeping their leaders as fresh as possible - that the teams of the yellow jersey rivals were forced to allow another opportunistic breakaway to go all the way to the finish.
Casar, of the Française des Jeux team, was among a four-man breakaway that formed at the 36 km mark, and they went on to build a lead which hit a maximum of just over 17 minutes with 70 km to race. In the closing stages Casar attacked on his own but despite taking a promising lead on Michael Boogerd, Laurent Lefevre and Axel Merckx, the Frenchman's legs gave way shortly after the red flat signalling one kilometre to the finish line.
But as the finish line loomed, Casar, who came a very close second to compatriot Cedric Vasseur last week, dug deep to surge ahead of Merckx.
"At last!" said Casar, who has three runner-up places in Tour stages so far. "It's been a long time in coming."
Casar's spectacular crash occurred after a dog had wandered from the left hand-side of the road which thronged with spectators. The Frenchman first hit the dog, then the tarmac on a slight descent as the quartet tried to stretch their advantage.
"The dog wasn't on the leash, so of course it surprised me," said Casar, who was left with grazes on his right buttock. "We were still going really fast because we didn't really have such a big gap on the peloton. Crashing is just part of the job, but at the same time I thought it was over for me."
The 28-year-old Frenchman had the good manners to thank Boogerd and Lefevre for slowing up and waiting for him after his setback, which left fallen Belgian Frederik Willems rejoining the peloton. When it came to the finale, Casar thought Boogerd's experience would tell. But he said the slight incline gave him the slight edge.
"When Boogerd caught up with me inside the final kilometre, and then with 500 metres to go I thought it was all over," said Casar. "I waited as long as I could, then just went for bust. A finish after a slight incline is what suits me best."
Boogerd, meanwhile, had reason to be doubly disappointed. The Dutchman went in search of a stage win to help soothe the pain of seeing his former team leader Michael Rasmussen evicted from the race. Boogerd's work helping the Dane get into the yellow jersey, and win two stages, counted for nothing on Wednesday when Rasmussen was sacked following his failure to inform the team where he was in June.
"My legs felt really good today. I think maybe I was the strongest up the hill, but I'm not the strongest in the sprints," said Boogerd who didn't want to talk about his former teammate. "I'm really tired (of answering questions about Rasmussen)."
Boogerd's attack moved him up the general classification to 13th overall at 19:10 behind Contador. Despite coming close on what is his 12th and final Tour de France appearance, the Dutchman said he won't be coming back next year.
"I am definitely retiring!"
Second placed Axel Merckx paid tribute to Casar. "I'm not a sprinter," said the Belgian. "Sandy Casar was stronger, he proved that three kilometres from the finish."
© AFP 2007
Also see: Stage 18 live report.