Norwegian Thor Hushovd finally ended his frustrating wait for victory on this year's Tour de France by winning a treacherous, rain-hit sixth stage from Gerona to Barcelona Thursday.
Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara retained the race leader's yellow jersey with a 0.22sec lead on American Lance Armstrong after the 181.5km stage ahead of the first day of climbing in the Pyrenees on Friday.
Despite attempts by Armstrong's Astana team to distance their yellow jersey rivals further with accelerations of pace on the climbs, the biggest star of the day was Hushovd.
The big Cervelo rider, handing his new team their first victory on the Tour, had to eat humble pie in the opening days of the race as British sprint rival Mark Cavendish coasted to consecutive victories on stages two and three.
As the more agile sprinters climbed to their battle on the uphill finish line, Cavendish had to settle for 16th place.
It was no surprise that Hushovd pumped his arms in the air, shouting defiantly moments after he had beat Spaniard Oscar Freire to victory.
"It's been a really stressful week, with crashes and the rain and just the race itself ... I'm just so happy," said Hushovd, winning his first stage this year to take his career tally to seven.
"It's always good to win on the Tour, but after everything that's happened this has to be one of my best."
He added: "I don't mind the uphill finish. I got to the front, and I still had a bit left in the legs. I saw Oscar Freire go but I managed to get past him and win."
David Millar tried to stay clear for a solo win
In a dramatic finale Scotland's David Millar saw his ambitious attack come to an agonising end just 2km from the finish line as the pace of the sprinters' teams ruined his day at the front among a three-man breakaway.
"I believed I had a chance of going all the way but once I arrived on those big boulevards I knew the peloton would be able to organise the chase better," said Millar. "It's unlucky, but it was still a great day for me."
The rush for the line: Hushovd (L), Rojas (C) and Freire (R)
As a 40-strong group raced past the Scot on the way towards the Olympic stadium at Montjuic, it was every man for himself as the uphill finish line approached.
Freire pulled slightly forward of the rest in the closing 150 metres but Hushovd drove more powerfully up the Spaniard's right hand side to beat him by a bike length.
Cavendish retained the sprinters' green jersey by just one point over Hushovd, the 2005 winner of the points competition's prize, who denied it would be an easy task to take over from Cavendish in the mountains.
"It would be nice to but he climbs pretty well too, Cavendish," added Hushovd.
But as the race heads upwards, it is the race for the yellow jersey that will take centre stage.
On Friday's first day in the Pyrenees, Cancellara - who is not a realistic contender for the race's main prize - is almost guaranteed to lose the lead, which could go to second place Armstrong, or to teammate Alberto Contador. But the Swiss, who also wore the yellow jersey for a week in 2006 and has since won a number of smaller stage races, said he might be ready to give it a try.
"There's far better climbers here than were at the Tour of Switzerland," said Cancellara, who won in Switzerland after managing to stay with most of the leaders on the race's climbs, which are nevertheless easier than on the Tour.
"I want to defend it but I just don't know how far I can go. If it's over for me tomorrow it doesn't matter. It's been a great week and I've been proud to wear the jersey.
"But I'm ready to try and defend the jersey."
Armstrong hinted that for the first time this year, he was ready to let 2007 champion Contador take centre stage.
"I know Alberto wants to assert himself in the race, I don't need a team meeting to tell me that," said the American.
"I know he's ready to go (attack), if he goes - and no-one can go with him - I will just hang back and stay with the other leaders."
© AFP 2009
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