McEwen madness adds to Boonen's dominance

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However, Boonen's ability to tear out of the pack with 200m to go held infinitely less spectator interest than the two-wheeled duel of another nature taking place close behind the Belgian between Australian fastmen Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady.

McEwen, blocked in by O'Grady as the line approached, responded by ramming his head into the Cofidis rider's shoulder - and keeping it there.

While Boonen delivered his increasingly familiar salute of pointing both arms straight into the sky, the two Australians crossed the line a few tenths of a second later in almost comically tender fashion, with McEwen's crewcut seemingly glued to O'Grady's upper body.

With cycling's equivalent of "He ran into my fist" McEwen said: "My arm was trapped under O'Grady's elbow. That twisted my body and pulled my head towards him."

It is not uncommon for sprinters to use their elbows in the cut-and-thrust for a good position as the line approaches and adrenalin soars, but McEwen's brazen attempt to head off the opposition could hardly go unnoticed by race officials. Even before the race classifications for the stage had been published, the news had broken that the Davitamon-Lotto rider had been swiftly relegated from third place on the stage to fourth last. He also earned himself a 200Sfr (£90) fine.

Over a bike length ahead of his closest rival, Peter Wrolich of Austria, Boonen meanwhile had been oblivious to the nefarious doings close behind.

He showed a fine line in diplomacy afterwards, though, arguing - albeit tongue in cheek - that "McEwen could have been avoiding a crash or a spectator." Considering that the Australian had been in the centre of the 10-metre wide Avenue de Grammont at the time of the incident, it can only be assumed that Boonen had not watched a video of the finish.

McEwen's relegation is nothing but good news for the Belgian, given that the Australian is one of his toughest rivals for the points competition - awarded to the most consistently placed rider in stage finishes.

Two back-to-back first places for Boonen mean that his hold on the green jersey is already surprisingly solid for a race which only got under way on Saturday, and McEwen's disqualification strengthens his position.

Overall leader David Zabriskie's chances of staying in yellow after today's team time trial stage are more than slim. He is two seconds ahead of race favourite Lance Armstrong, but Zabriskie's CSC team are likely to buckle under the pressure in the 67.5km collective test of strength between Tours and Blois.

The winners of the equivalent stage for the past two years, and with morale on an overwhelming high after Armstrong's superb ride in the Tour's opening time trial, the Texan's Discovery Channel squad are universal favourites for a third consecutive win - and Armstrong will find himself in the race lead for the 66th time in his career.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'

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