Boonen bids for Cipo's throne

The 'Lion King' may have departed the Tour, but there is a pretender to his throne in the shape of s

The 'Lion King' may have departed the Tour, but there is a pretender to his throne in the shape of s
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE On the day that two outstanding sprinters bowed out of the Tour because of injury, in Mario Cipollini's case for probably the last time in his long and illustrious career, the arrival of an impressive new presence on the sprinting scene was confirmed when 23-year-old Tom Boonen won today's stage into Angers. The young Belgian swept by Erik Zabel on the rise up to the line and held off the fast-finishing Stuart O'Grady to take his first Tour de France stage win, and no less than his 14th victory of the season. Cipollini and fellow retiree Alessandro Petacchi will probably have few regrets about pulling out this morning having seen the conclusion of the stage. Boonen finished it off in textbook fashion but not far beyond him there was chaos. Just as the final breakaway of the day, Juan Antonio Flecha, was sucked in by the charging bunch with barely a kilometre left to race, someone went down right in the middle of the surging crowd and all but the 30 or so riders right at the front followed that first rider onto the road or were seriously held up. Thankfully, because the incident had happened metres inside the final kilometre kite, the whole bunch was credited with the same time as winner Boonen. If it had happened a few seconds earlier on the other side of the kite, Lance Armstrong would have lost a few seconds to Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton as much as two minutes and Levi Leipheimer as many as three. Thomas Voeckler might also have lost his yellow jersey to O'Grady. Robbie McEwen was one of those who went down heavily, preventing the Australian from contesting the sprint, and he did lose his green jersey to O'Grady. The already dispirited Gilberto Simoni was another battered-looking finisher. Early reports suggested that the rider worst affected was Gerolsteiner's Ren Haselbacher, best remembered at the Tour for somersaulting along the finishing straight during an early stage last year. The Austrian received medical attention at the scene. Lance Armstrong said of his eventful day that included two crashes: "The first crash happened when two guys came down in front of me, I slammed the brakes on but I couldn't avoid it," he said. "The second time was just 10 metres inside the final kilometre. It was crazy. There were 200 guys coming in at 200 miles per hour. I don't know what the hell they were thinking." On the race overall, he said: "I don't want to sacrifice the guys when there are still two weeks to race," he said. "It's the perfect scenario for us. If a breakaway stays away to the finish it also makes the end of the stage less nervous, because if the peloton's all together it gets a little crazy. Tactically, Voeckler having the yellow jersey is a godsend for us. "They will defend it until the mountains, perhaps even through the Pyrenees," Armstrong said of current overall race leader Voeckler and his Brioches la Boulangere team. "I don't know a lot about him, other than he's French national champion, but it will be a while before the jersey goes to somebody else." Armstrong believes he has established a psychological edge over Ullrich, his long-term rival. "A minute on Ullrich is a lot in my opinion," he said. "I say that because if I was in his place I'd be saying 'Oh man - I'm already a minute down." Back with the racing, and earlier the day had followed a typical first week pattern. Lots of riders tried to get away early on, six finally succeeded: after 21 kilometres Fassa Bortolo's Flecha went clear with Alessandro Bertolini (Alessio), Carlos Dacruz (fdjeux.com), Jimmy Engoulvent (Cofidis), Marc Lotz (Rabobank) and finally CSC's Kurt-Asle Arvesen. Their advantage peaked at four and a half minutes with 75km left, but without the driving impetus of Petacchi's Fassa 'train' that deficit was only finally erased with a kilometre left when the gutsy Flecha was caught. From that point on finishing was a question of luck as much as positioning. Boonen scored on both counts and delivered the stage that his team's earlier work suggested they were expecting.
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