Belgium's Tom Boonen ended a two-year wait to get reacquainted with victory on the Tour de France by winning the sixth stage, held over 199.5km between Semur-en-Auxois and here on Friday.
Boonen, the 2005 world champion, proved too powerful in the mass sprint for Spain's Oscar Freire and German sprint veteran Erik Zabel for what was his fifth career stage win on the Tour. Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara (CSC) retained the leader's yellow jersey.
Boonen, who rides for the Quick Step team, had failed to win any stages on last year's race and there were questions over his motives a few days ago when he appeared to let his teammate Gert Steegmans beat him to the line on the race's second stage. However with this win, Boonen has struck a double blow.
With Australian Robbie McEwen still feeling the effects of a crash, and Thor Hushovd also suffering from a sore back, Boonen is now in with a great chance of battling for the points classification's green jersey. The Belgian took it from the shoulders of former six-time consecutive winner Zabel, ironically on the day it was announced the Milram sprinter would be stripped of his 1996 jersey after admitting to doping that year.
"Stage win means a lot to me, and now the pressure's on for the green jersey," said Boonen, who last won a stage on the Tour in 2005. "I've felt good all week, despite what some people might think. I'm really proud to have contributed to the team's account. Friday the 13th from now on is a lucky day."
Ahead of two tough days in the Alps, and a day after a torrid pursuit of a four-man breakaway which took its toll on the peloton, the bunch were only too happy to see an early breakaway go.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins escaped at the two-kilometre mark and went on to build a massive lead which topped 17min 30sec. Wiggins, however, was left on his own all day - meaning that despite his valiant efforts he had little chance of getting to the finish line ahead of the peloton.
Race leader Cancellara's CSC team were among those who began to play a role in the chase of Wiggins, who ironically is the world and Olympic individual pursuit champion.
At the halfway mark, Wiggins' lead had dropped to just over eight minutes and despite him increasing the pace in the closing third of the race the big Cofidis rider could do little to stop the peloton's progress. His bid gradually eroded, and he was overtaken with 7km to race.
From there, the sprinters' teams began pushing towards the front of the bunch in a bid to line up their respective fast men for what is one of the last chances for them to claim a stage win.
Cancellara meanwhile knows he will lose the yellow jersey in Saturday's seventh stage, the first of two consecutive stages in the Alps. But he hopes it will stay within the team.
"Tomorrow (Saturday) there will be Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck for us, it will be up to them," said Cancellara. "I will try while I can, but for me the last 15km (of the stage) is not for me. I will support them as much as possible, because they've supported me all week. They've done a great job keeping me in the yellow jersey."
Cancellara added that whatever happens, he had already collected enough yellow jerseys to be able to hand some out to his teammates as gifts. "I want to give them to my teammates, I've kept as many as possible so I can hand them out."
Saturday's stage, a 197.5 km ride from here to Le Grand Bornand includes the race's first category one climb and will test the condition of Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana teammate Andreas Klöden.
Both race contenders finished Friday's stage, albeit in pain, after separate crashes during Thursday's crash-marred fifth stage.
© AFP 2007