Cycling: Sweet day for Australia and O'Grady

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THERE was an element of farce about the third stage of the Prutour of Britain yesterday when the main bunch took the wrong exit from a roundabout, but order was restored and in the end there was no change at the top of the overall standings.

It proved to be Australia's day as Jay Sweet was first across the line after the 116-mile ride here from Manchester and his fellow countryman Stuart O'Grady retained the red jersey of overall leadership by 17 seconds from Chris Boardman.

The rain, climbs and controversy failed to split the field, and the stage ended in a mass sprint along the seafront where Sweet had a length to spare over Sweden's Magnus Backstedt with O'Grady third.

Chaos and confusion struck at Clitheroe, just before half-distance. A five-man breakaway group took the correct route and happily opened up what seemed to them an unbeatable lead, unaware that the main pack had taken the wrong exit off a roundabout. The puzzled peloton finally came to halt in a shopping centre car park.

After a good deal of discussion over the race radios, officials decided to halt the breakaways and hold them at the roadside until the pack had rejoined the right route. When the gap between the two groups had been closed to its original 5min 40sec margin, the leaders, including Mark Walsham, were waved on their way again.

"I don't know if there's a rule to cover this kind of incident," Walsham said. "We had no alternative but to follow instructions and stop, otherwise it would have made a farce of the race."

Cold and stiff after a 34-minute enforced halt, Walsham was dropped by his breakaway partners on the seven-mile climb on the Trough of Bowland. Descending at 50mph he fought back and after a long chase rejoined the leaders in time to win a pounds 1,000 special sprint prize at Garstang.

The main peloton finally caught the escapees as Blackpool Tower loomed on the horizon. Sweet mastered the high-speed manoeuvring along the Golden Mile to take the stage.

"About time too, my last win was on Boxing Day in my home town of Adelaide," said Sweet, who is in his first season as a first division professional with the French Bigmat Auber 93 team.

He welcomed the stoppage. "I was able to get some food and do some stretching exercises, but it took a lot of interest out of the race for the strong men in the peloton. It became rather negative and stayed together over the final climb, which suited me fine because this is a great event, apart from having too many hills," he said.

After two tough days in which he had dictated the tactics, Boardman welcomed a day in the obscurity of the peloton, finishing 21st in the same time as the winner.

Three consecutive stages of more than 100 miles have reduced the field to 93 riders, who face a 95-mile leg through the Peak District from Chester to Nottingham today.

PRUTOUR (Third stage, Manchester to Blackpool, 116 miles): 1 J Sweet (Aus) Bigmat Auber 93 4hr 39min 35sec; 2 M Backstedt (Swe) Gan; 3 S O'Grady (Aus) Gan; 4 G Hincapie (US) US Postal Service; 5 L Auger (Fr) Bigmat Auber 93; 6 D McKenzie (Aus) National team; 7 C Walker (GB) Brite; 8 C Lillywhite (GB) National team; 9 R Hayles (GB) Brite; 10 G Miller (NZ) National team, all same time. Leading overall positions: 1 S O'Grady (Aus) Gan 13hr 57min 9sec; 2 C Boardman (GB) Gan at 17sec; 3 D Baranowski (Pol) US Postal Service +29sec; 4 G Hincapie (US) US Postal Service +31; 5 N Stephens (Aus) Festina +42; 6 C Newton (GB) Brite +57; 7 T Hamilton (US) US Postal Service +59; 8 C Dacruz (Fr) Bigmat Auber 93 +1:06; 9 N Sorensen (Den) National team +1:20; 10 S Berges (Fr) Bigmat Auber 93 +1:21.