Norway's Thor Hushovd, riding for the Credit Agricole team, prevailed in a mass sprint for the fourth stage honours of the Tour de France, a 193km run from Villers-Cotterets and here, on Wednesday. Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara (CSC), winner of the prologue and Tuesday's second stage, retained the leader's yellow jersey when coming home in the body of the peloton.
The 29-year-old Hushovd, spurred to the line by his teammate, New Zealand's Julian Dean, beat home South Africa's Robert Hunter for his fifth career stage win in the Tour De France. Spain's Oscar Freire took third in front of German veteran Erik Zabel.
Hushovd, reflecting on his productive day, said: "Julian did a terrific job, I had complete confidence in him. When you saw what he did setting off 450m out you could say that he was the best in the world for setting up a sprint."
"It restores our confidence - and hopefully we can get another one along the way," said Dean, who is looking ahead to Friday's stage, which precedes the first of three days in the Alps.
Hushovd, who is nicknamed "Schwarzy" - in reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger and due to the powerful build hiding underneath his green Credit Agricole shirt - had started this season with ambitions of doing well in some of the one-day classics more suited to his style. But on the eve of Milan-San Remo he fell ill, and that affected his entire campaign.
"It's a big relief winning today," he admitted. "After I fell ill on the eve of Milan-San Remo it compromised everything. I came back, and raced at the Giro and twice I finished second."
Wednesday's win was Hushovd's first win on the Tour since he claimed the final stage on the Champs Elysees last year, barely three weeks after he had stunned the peloton by winning the race's opening prologue. He also won a stage on the Tour in 2004, and claimed his first in 2002.
His win in Joigny could, however, unlock the door to another ambition on the race - winning the green jersey which he claimed in 2005.
Hushovd moved up to second overall at 29secs behind race leader Fabian Cancellara of CSC, and if it all falls into place in the coming days he could spend a day or two in the yellow jersey. And after claiming precious points at the finish, he is now fifth in the points classification on 79, 19 behind Tom Boonen.
After the previous day's desperate chase of a four-man breakaway had led to Cancellara's shock win the peloton were in no mood to endure a similar scenario. In the latter stages the bunch proved positively more alert as they chased down a five-man break which had formed at the 31.5km mark thanks to Frenchman Mathieu Sprick, whose attack prompted four other riders, including former stage winner Juan Antonio Flecha of Rabobank, to join in.
Thirty kilometres further on, their advantage had grown to over three and a half minutes. Shortly after the halfway mark of the race it went to four minutes.
Cofidis rider Sylvain Chavanel's presence among the lead group meant he had a double task: helping with relays in the breakaway, and trying to take as many points as possible in the battle for the polka dot jersey, being worn by his teammate Stéphane Augé back in the bunch. Augé took the polka dot jersey from Britain's David Millar on Tuesday, however the Frenchman held a slim lead.
After Millar had beat Augé on the day's first classified climb, the Scot finishing second behind Aleksandre Kushynski, Chavanel pushed ahead to claim the points on the second climb ahead of Flecha.
Up front meanwhile CSC's Cancellara was assuming his role as race leader with authority, despite the likelihood of him soon relinquishing the yellow jersey once the race hits the Alps on Saturday. Mindful of Tuesday lethargic pace, CSC controlled the chasing peloton to keep the four leaders on a relatively tight leash. Once their lead had grown to four minutes at the 110 km mark, however, CSC began to up the pace.
Belgium's Tom Boonen, who was among the sprinters to be stunned by Cancellara's successful drive to the finish on Tuesday, sent his teammate Bram Tankink to the front to lend a hand to CSC. Australian Robbie McEwen did likewise, sending Wim Vansevenant up to the front of the bunch.
With 48km to race, some of it over tight, undulating roads, the peloton had reduced their deficit to two minutes. The five men at the front were resisting well, however the pain of being out on their own all day with little respite between relays began to tell. The bunch had reduced their deficit to 1:44 with 33km to race, prompting Flecha to attack at the front and with seven kilometres to go the leaders had been reunited with the main group.
Thursday's fifth stage is a 182.km run from Chablis to Autun.
© AFP 2007