Italy's Filippo Pozzato of the Liguigas team dominated an uphill sprint finish on a dramatic fifth stage of the Tour de France, which gave a huge scare to yellow jersey hopeful Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden. Fabian Cancellara of the CSC team, the winner of the prologue and the third stage, retained the yellow jersey with a 33sec lead over Andreas Klöden in the overall standings.
Cancellara, however, was among the riders who came close to disaster on the tight, winding climbs and descents which punctuated the 182.5km ride through the lush vineyards between Chablis and here. The Swiss, wearing the yellow jersey, almost went off the side of the road after missing a bend as he chased down a late attack by stage hopeful Yaroslav Popovych.
Earlier Klöden, one of the men hoping to dispossess CSC's race leader of the yellow jersey, came close to ending his Tour early after he was the first of the Astana team's leaders to come crashing to the ground, tumbling into a grassy ditch but getting back on his bike to continue.
He finished the stage, but Astana team manager Marc Biver admitted the signs did not look good. "I'm worried about Klöden. He seems to have a fracture of the coccyx," he said. This was later confirmed to be correct, although Klöden will start stage 6.
Later Vinokourov's 60 km/h fall on the tarmac cost the race favourite over a minute as he struggled to rejoin the back of an increasingly fast chasing bunch.
In the end Pozzato, 25, emerged as the surprise stage winner after the bunch had emerged together in the final kilometres having pulled in a couple of late attacks. He held off Spaniard Oscar Freire, the former three-time world champion, and Italy's Daniele Bennati to add to his only other stage win on the Tour three years ago.
"To beat Freire is a massive result for me," said the Italian, the winner of the Milan-San Remo one-day classic in 2006.
Vinokourov should live to fight another day, but on the first full day of action on this year's Tour it appeared that Friday the 13th had come a day too early for Astana.
The other Tour contenders - Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans, Oscar Pereiro and Alejandro Valverde - all avoided mishaps. Having seen Astana's misfortune, they will be thanking their lucky stars two days ahead of the first stage in the Alps.
Cancellara is not an overall contender for the yellow jersey, due to his relative weakness in the mountains. But after his CSC team had left the chase of the four-man breakaway to the Liquigas, Rabobank and Discovery Channel teams, the big Swiss rider got a taste of the risk that goes with trying to defend the yellow jersey.
Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych went on the attack in the closing eight kilometres but almost missed a left-hand bend as he descended the second last climb of the day. Moments later Cancellara almost left the road at the same section, only some late braking and a dramatic skid keeping him upright. Afterwards he admitted that CSC's decision to leave the chasing to other teams had been risky, but said the other teams had to contribute if they wanted their share of victories.
"There are 21 teams on the race all wanting to win stages, so we let them ride for a change," he said. "The risk paid off in the end, but Liquigas deserve claiming the win because they worked a lot in the chase. At the end we contributed to the chase, so I have to say thanks again to my team for keeping me in the yellow jersey."
The first real day of climbing - ahead of the first day in the Alps Saturday - was again brought to life by Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of Cofidis. Chavanel pulled away inside the first 20 kms, and was joined by fellow Frenchman William Bonnet and Belgium Philippe Gilbert. Further on they were joined by Giampaolo Cheula, and together they went on to build a lead which topped over 14 minutes.
It was ultimately reduced as the peloton gave chase, and then Chavanel and Gilbert went off on their own before being caught seven kilometres from the finish line. Chavanel had briefly thought about pulling on the yellow jersey, but at least finished with the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey on his shoulders.
"It's a good reward for me after the stage," said the Frenchman, who came over the top first in seven of the stage's eight climbs to secure the jersey. When our lead grew to 14 minutes I started thinking about the yellow jersey, but it wasn't to be.
"I don't know if I'll be able to keep hold of the climbers' lead, but who knows. I'll take it day by day."
Friday's sixth stage is a 199.5km run from Semur-en-Auxois to Bourg-en-Bresse.
© AFP 2007