Britain's Mark Cavendish of the Columbia team won a dramatic third stage of the Tour de France into La Grande Motte Monday, as Lance Armstrong struck an unexpected first blow in the yellow jersey battle.
Thanks to an unintentional but deadly turn of pace by Cavendish's Columbia team, Armstrong moved up seven places from 10th to third overall at just 40 seconds off the pace.
Overnight race leader Fabian Cancellara retained the yellow jersey but the big Swiss was the only one of his much-fancied Saxo Bank team to stay with a 28-man group when Columbia split the peloton with 31km to race.
Saxo Bank's yellow jersey hopeful Andy Schleck lost 41 seconds to Armstrong, though he was not alone.
Cancellara, who does not have the climbing talents to be able to win the race, now leads German Tony Martin, of Columbia, by 33 seconds ahead of Tuesday's team time trial in Montpellier.
In fourth place overall at 19 seconds behind Armstrong is his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion who is considered this year's yellow jersey favourite.
Contador was among a host of yellow jersey contenders, including Australian Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, Schleck and defending champion Carlos Sastre, to lose time to Armstrong.
As a result, recent questions over whether Armstrong or Contador is Astana's team's yellow jersey contender have re-emerged.
While Cavendish claimed Columbia had not intended to split the peloton when their pace, amid strong cross winds, caused panic with 32km to go, Cancellara admitted he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
"I was there at the right time, I had some information from the car that there was a bend on the right hand side and with crosswinds after it," said the Swiss. "After the split I just tried just to stay calm and well hidden in the leading group to save as much as possible for the team time trial. It's too bad I was the only Saxo Bank guy there but, that's all part of cycling."
After the crashes which preceded Sunday's second stage to Brignoles, the first real day of race drama saw Cavendish cap another fine display of collective riding by Columbia.
"It was a good decision by Columbia," admitted QuickStep's Tom Boonen, the 2005 world road race champion. "It came after a corner, they just bolted off and pulled 40 to 50 metres clear, no one saw that coming and I certainly didn't expect that.
"I was trying to stay cool, but I did wonder how we were going to claw the time back," he added. "It was a big battle which was won by between eight to ten riders at the front."
With his team having used up much of their energy on their ferocious drive to the finish line among a group of 28, he had to rely on main lead-out man Mark Renshaw to drag him in as close as possible to the finish line.
At just under 200 metres to go Renshaw pulled off and Cavendish hammered home to easily beat Norwegian Thor Hushovd.
In the process, he even had time to coolly imitate making a telephone call - which he later explained was to honour a promise to a new team sponsor.
It was his second win in as many days and takes his career stage tally to six, the same as Hushovd, who is now competing for the ninth time at the world's biggest bike race.
"It was always going to be a hard in the last kilometre," said Cavendish. "We'd used all our guys to get the break in the first place so it was up to me and Mark Renshaw and again he's showed he's the best lead-out man in the world."
It remains to be seen whether Columbia pay for their hard day in the saddle on Tuesday, when, if they manage to beat Cancellara's Saxo Bank team by 33 seconds, Martin could take over the yellow jersey.
© AFP 2009
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