Spaniard Carlos Sastre of the CSC-Saxo Bank team retained the Tour de France yellow jersey in Saint-Étienne Thursday as German Marcus Burghardt handed his Columbia team their fifth victory of the race.
Burghardt dominated a short, two-man sprint with Spaniard Carlos Barredo of the QuickStep team at the end of the 196.5km stage from Bourg d'Oisans to Saint-Étienne to claim his maiden win on the race.
With the end in Paris now only three days away Sastre has a 1:24 lead over CSC teammate Frank Schleck with Austrian Bernhard Kohl of Gerolsteiner at 1:33, just one second ahead of Aussie racer Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto).
Russian Denis Menchov, who rides for Rabobank, is 2:29 off the pace.
"I had quite a relaxing day on the bike," said Sastre, who is trying his best not to reveal exactly how he rates his chances in the race's deciding time trial. "I don't want to think about the time trial. I just want to enjoy spending each day in the yellow jersey."
How the race unfolded
Ahead of the race's 53km time trial on Saturday, in which Sastre is likely to face a stiff challenge from Evans, the peloton decided that a rest was called for following three days in the Alps.
An early breakaway formed, and the end result left Burghardt racing with Barredo from the 68km mark before they built a lead on the peloton which still topped the 10-minute mark with 10km to race.
A three-man group of chasers were four minutes in their wake, and unlikely to close that gap. That left the two frontrunners to engage in a thrilling, and at times hilarious, game of cat-and-mouse. Barredo's first acceleration came with 12km to go, and 4km further on he attacked just after looking round to see Burghardt distracted as he tried to zip up his jersey.
With 3.2km to race Barredo, aiming to hand his under-achieving Belgian team their first win of this year's race, attacked again but the little Spanish climber could not have timed it worse. His acceleration came just before a left-hand bend, which forced him to steer frantically away from the safety barriers.
Another quick burst from Barredo came just before the kilometre to go flag, but the Spaniard was eventually undone after Burghardt - watching his rival closely on the home straight - sprinted ahead of him in the final 150 metres.
Burghardt's stage win adds to the four handed to Columbia by their British sprinter Mark Cavendish, who left the race last week to prepare for the Beijing Olympics in August.
The Swiss-based German said he had been given the green light to attack by his team.
"Yesterday I took it really easy in the Alps, and the days before to save a bit of power," said Burghardt, who played down suggestions Barredo had been cheeky to try and sneak an attack on him as he zipped up his jersey. "I think for QuickStep the Tour hasn't been so good, so maybe he probably wanted to try everything he could. Maybe it was a good moment for him, but I was focused on him and I think I did a good job."
Columbia team chief Bob Stapleton came into the race hoping for stage wins from Cavendish and a good overall placing for team leader Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg.
Stapleton admitted that a fifth stage win from 18 of the race's 21 stages so far has been a good return.
"After all the work he did to help the team during the race Marcus got his chance today, and his win is just rewards for his contribution," said Stapleton. "I was just hoping that he had enough energy left in the finale after everything he's done in the Tour."
A professional since 2005, it was Burghardt's first Tour stage win and his first major win since returning to action following an early season crash.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008