Most of the richer pickings on offer in this year's Tour de France have long since been taken, but yesterday in Montluçon the Belgian Serge Baguet snaffled one of the last few morsels available in the teeth of a fast-closing peloton.
One of three last remnants from the break of the day, neither the Italian Massimiliano Lelli nor the Danish national champion, Jakob Piil, were able to follow the 31 year old as the Lotto rider sprinted up a gently ascending boulevard to take his team's – and country's – second stage win in three days.
"Maybe it's in the blood," Baguet admitted afterwards. "My father, Roger Baguet, was a fine sprinter and team-worker for Rik Van Looy" – a Belgian one-day classics legend of the 1950s – "and he has always tried to persuade me that I had fast legs." Just like Baguet's last-minute sprint on the slight rise at Montluçon, though, convincing his son of his cycling worth proved to be something of an uphill task for Baguet senior.
After six years as a professional, during which time – in 1993 – one of his biggest victories was a stage in the now-defunct Kellogg's Tour of Britain, Baguet the younger decided that he was "never going to be a good rider". "I would eat fish for lunch, but there was always a bag of chips by me on the sofa when I watched TV in the evenings," he explained.
Unable to hack the diet, Baguet returned to civilian life, mending tiles for his father-in-law's business in the small Belgian village of Liede. However, he then discovered "being on top of a roof for 14 hours a day wasn't my cup of tea either". So when his old team, Lotto, offered him a second chance in 2000, he seized it with both hands.
Eighteen months after his return to the pro ranks, Baguet was one of 16 riders who had tried taking off early on yet another stage where small hills and tricky descents proliferated in the first few hours. This was essentially a repetition of the tactic employed by other non-favourites in the first two days of the Tour's long march from the Pyrenees to Paris – jumping away early and relying on a peloton's indifference after five tough mountain stages.
But yesterday the battle for the green points jersey – one of the few prime cuts still to be decided before Sunday evening – and the returning strength of the sprinters' teams kept the gap down to a little over four minutes. Jan Ullrich's team-mate Erik Zabel is determined to claim the jersey for a sixth consecutive time, but the Australian sprinter Stuart O'Grady still had a 12-point advantage over his rival yesterday morning.
Spurred on after Bonjour and Domo, two teams also interested in what would have been the first bunch sprint for 10 days, the Telekom team director, Rudy Pevenage, flung what were effectively his reserve troops – Udo Bolts and Giuseppe Guerini – into the charge after the 16.
As the peloton finally emerged from the hills of central France and began a long, largely straight descent to the flatlands beyond, the gap plummeted, and it seemed as if their task would be over quickly.
But Lelli bounded away with 35km remaining, and Piil and Baguet quickly bridged the gap to the Italian, with the peloton less than a minute behind. Lelli would have been an unjust winner, but he flagged at the finish, and while Piil was able to hold the Belgian briefly, he slipped out of the Dane's grasp 20 metres from the finish. In the final sprint, Baguet was the fresher.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
Tour results: 17th STAGE (194km, Brive to Montlucon): 1 S Baguet (Bel) Lotto-Adecco 4hr 13min 36sec; 2 J Piil (Den) CSC-Tiscali same time; 3 M Lelli (It) Cofidis +5sec; 4 J Svorada (Cz Rep) Lampre-Daikin +13; 5 D Nazon (Fr) Bonjour; 6 E Zabel (Ger) Deutsche Telekom; 7 S O'Grady (Aus) Cridit Agricole; 8 Romans Vainstens (Lat) Domo-Farm Frites; 9 A Petacchi (It) Fassa Bortolo; 10 C Capelle (Fr) Bigmat-Auber; 11 E Magnien (Fr) Francaise des Jeux; 12 A Botcharov (Rus) AG2r Prevoyance; 13 G Mikhaolov (Rus) Lotto-Adecco; 14 J Odriozola (Sp) Ibanesto.com; 15 S Teutenberg (Ger) Festina Watches; 16 N Mattan (Bel) Cofidis; 17 F Simon (Fr) Bonjour; 18 A Sivakov (Rus) BigMat-Auber; 19 J-E Guttierez (Sp) Kelme-Costa Blanca; 20 L Brochard (Fr) Jean Delatour.
Leading overall standings: 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service 77hr 53min 17sec; 2 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +5:05; 3 A Kivilev (Kazak) Cofidis +5:13; 4 J Beloki (Sp) Once-Eroski +6:33; 5 F Simon (Fr) Bonjour +10:54; 6 I Gonzalez-Galdeano (Sp) Once-Eroski +12:04; 7 O Sevilla (Sp) Kelme-Costa Blanca +13:55; 8 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +16:15; 9 S Botero (Col) Kelme-Costa Blanca +18:12; 10 M Serrano (Sp) Once-Eroski +19:20Reuse content