Thor Hushovd tightens grip on green jersey
Norwegian Thor Hushovd tightened his grip on the race's points competition after picking up 17 points for his ninth place finish on the Tour de France fourth stage on Wednesday.
Hushovd, a former two-time winner, took possession of the competition's green jersey when he battled to a superb win over the cobbles of Tuesday's third stage to leave British rival Mark Cavendish 62 points adrift.
On Wednesday the big Cervelo rider was expected to be in the mix for another stage win - that would have given him 35 points to add to his account.
But after his heroic efforts on Tuesday, Hushovd said he simply didn't have the power.
He could only finish in ninth as Italian veteran Alessandro Petacchi rolled back the years to take his second win of the race for Lampre and with it 35 points for the win.
"Today I just didn't have the power in the sprint," said Hushovd.
"The first three stages were very nervous and yesterday I put a lot of energy into winning that stage at Arenberg."
HTC-Columbia's Cavendish came into the race declaring his green jersey ambition having finished in Paris last year with six stage wins under his belt.
Yet the self-proclaimed "fastest man on two wheels" may have to review those plans after yet another day off the podium.
Tour de France sprint legend Erik Zabel, a six-time winner of the green jersey and an advisor to Cavendish, said before the start of Wednesday's stage that Cavendish's dream may already be over.
"It's an unspoken rule in the Tour that you can miss one stage, be 30, 35 points behind and it's still no problem because the (other) sprinters can have some bad luck," Zabel told AFP.
"But now, 62 points, it's a lot."
Cavendish's 12th place on Wednesday meant that he did at least get up and running. He started the day with one point, and although he now has 15 his deficit to Hushovd is 65.
Ahead of three days in the Alps from Saturday to Tuesday, which also includes the race's first rest day on Monday, Cavendish has a chance to hit back on Thursday's stage to Montargis.
Cavendish's lead-out man Mark Renshaw said their race is not over yet.
"We'll go away and have a talk about things tonight but we'll be back tomorrow and we'll be looking for the stage win," said the Australian.
Julian Dean looks to sprint role after second on Tour
Julian Dean (C) hopes to emerge from Petacchi's shadow and win a stage
Kiwi sprinter Julian Dean seized the day at the Tour de France on Wednesday, and only came off second best to Italian ace Alessandro Petacchi on the race's fourth stage.
Dean, who normally works as the lead-out man for American teammate Tyler Farrar, has been promoted at least for the time being as Garmin-Transitions' main sprinter recovers from a wrist fracture.
In Farrar's absence from the bunch sprint Dean took his chance with both hands despite still hurting from the various knocks he picked up on the crash-marred second stage.
He could only finish runner-up to a pumped-up Petacchi, who also won the opening stage in Brussels, but Dean is now hoping their persistence in recent days pays off with a win on Thursday or Friday.
"I didn't feel super but I've been around a long time, I know how to follow wheels and get myself in the right position and that's what I did - and ended up with second place," said Dean.
"I didn't quite have it to come around Petacchi at the finish, but it was alright considering I only came out of hospital two days ago."
With Farrar likely to wait until the latter half of the race before trying to pull too hard on the handlebars, Dean is ready to step up to the plate.
But the 35-year-old, once labelled the best lead-out man in the world by former teammate Thor Hushovd, believes he won't have it too easy as misfiring British sprinter Mark Cavendish attempts to relaunch his stuttering bid.
"It's something I'm going to have to think a little bit more about now,"
added Dean, whose team lost their leader, Christian Vande Velde, on Monday after he broke ribs in a crash.
"Obviously I showed today that I'm capable of mixing it in the sprints now, so (we will) try and change things around a little bit.
"But we've still got a good, strong team and I'm sure we can put out some good results and wait for Tyler to come around."
With Canadian Ryder Hesjedal finishing fourth on stage three, and Dean second, the Kiwi believes a win is just around the corner.
"We'll certainly try and consolidate our resources a bit more tomorrow and get a good plan together, hopefully take a victory. Fourth (Hesjedal) yesterday, second today, the next one's a win."
On the wide boulevards of Reims, where Australian Robbie McEwen took the honours ahead of German legend Erik Zabel in 2002, Petacchi was too strong for them all.
And while Dean dreams of his own success, he knows that both Petacchi and Cavendish will prove tough customers.
"Petacchi's obviously very, very strong in those last 300 metres like that when it's a big open sprint," added the New Zealander.
"He's very powerful and he's got good slow acceleration to the line and I couldn't really overtake him. He timed his sprint really well. We raced against him at the Giro (d'Italia), where he wasn't good at all. Then at the Tour of Switzerland, where he won a stage.
"But he's come here with no expectations, and that's been his biggest asset. He hasn't been under pressure and (been allowed to) concentrate on his performance."
He added: "It's always a surprise to see 'Cav' not in the finish, but he's a good bike rider, a courageous athlete and I'm sure we're going to see him at the front of one of these stages -- though not if we can help it."
Hesjedal accepts challenge for top five finish
Ryder Hesjedal on the cobbles in stage 3
Ryder Hesjedal is not quite ready to target the yellow jersey, but the big Canadian knows he has no choice but to step in and replace Christian Vande Velde at the Tour de France.
Vande Velde, whom Hesjedal helped to a fifth place finish in 2008, crashed out of the race on stage two leaving Garmin-Transitions without their best rider to challenge for the race's coveted prize.
After his superb stage three performance over the tough cobbles left him with a fourth place finish, former mountain biker Hesjedal sits in third place overall with over a minute on some of the bigger favourites.
It means he has no choice but to take over Vande Velde's mantle, although the freedom he once enjoyed at the start of the race is now over.
"Now I have to look at it (differently) for the general (classification), I'm not going to be getting up the road anytime soon," Hesjedal told AFP before the start of the fourth stage to Reims on Wednesday.
Garmin-Transitions manager Jonathan Vaughters called out Hesjedal after his superb ride to Arenberg on Tuesday, suggesting he might fit into Vande Velde's role quite easily.
"We can't forget that Ryder is a very capable climber," Vaughters told AFP, later reporting on his Twitter site that he could see the Canadian "aim for the top five".
At least seven or eight riders have significantly more experience than Hesjedal in major Tours, so he is not getting carried away.
Three stages in the Alps beginning Saturday will also prove a big test, although he is hoping his major Tour experience -- which includes an historic stage win on the Tour of Spain for Canada in 2009 -- comes to the fore.
"You have to be capable of doing that (challenging) if you're someone helping someone on the GC (general classification)," he added. "I've obviously ridden the GC in a lot of races, so it's nothing new to me. But we'll see how it comes, and (I'll) take my chances.
"It's going to be a big test (this weekend) so we'll see once we get through there. That should be a good indicator of which way the race is going ahead of the mountains."
This weekend the ski stations of Rousses and Morzine-Avoriaz will host the first two summit finishes, and perhaps the first real battles between bigger favourites like Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong.
Tuesday ninth stage follows the race's first rest day and is also in the Alps, but finishes at the end of a long descent from the Col de la Madeleine.
Whether going up or down, Hesjedal said he is ready to give it his best shot.
"I definitely like the longer climbs where you can get into a good rhythm, but I've also shown that I can race well on the shorter, more explosive climbs like you get on the Tour of the Basque Country," he said.
"But I'm still developing. I'm pretty comfortable on the bike, and if I get over those kind of climbs in the right kind of position, I can definitely hold it to the bottom."
Armstrong heckled at end of fourth stage
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong was happy to finally get a crash-free stage under his belt as the Tour de France headed gradually towards the Alps on Wednesday.
However the 38-year-old American cut his media duties short at the RadioShack team bus moments after an unidentified heckler started shouting insults at the American.
In May at the Tour of Luxembourg Armstrong confronted a heckler who levelled insults which suggested the American was a drugs cheat.
And on Wednesday an unidentified man again shouted "cheat" and "dopehead" several times before Armstrong departed.
Before then the American, who lost precious time to his yellow jersey rivals on the cobblestones of stage three on Tuesday, admitted he was happy to have an almost normal stage on the bike.
"I didn't want to have a third day in a row of bad luck, so ... (it's) nice that everybody stayed up (on their bikes)," said Armstrong, who sits in 18th place overall at 2min 30sec behind race leader Fabian Cancellara and 1:51 behind the best-placed favourite, Australian Cadel Evans.
Asked what his strategy would likely be ahead of three days in the Alps, including two summit finishes, beginning Saturday the American said there was still plenty of scope for him to close his deficit.
"I think now you just got to pick up a few guys and focus on them... it's easy to look at the GC (general classification) and say 'gosh, there's 17 guys ahead of you'.
"But for the most part the vast majority of them won't be there (at the end)."
Armstrong has recently become a target for former teammate Floyd Landis, who claimed Armstrong and other members of their former team, US Postal, were involved in systematic doping.
Armstrong, who has never tested positive, has categorically denied the claims.
© AFP 2010