McEwen's magic rebuffs Backstedt

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The Independent Online

When the fast men massed for a final lunge towards the finish line here in Karlsruhe, Germany, he did not think twice and plunged through an impossibly tiny gap which opened close to the right-hand barriers.

"I was dying in the last 50 metres but nobody was coming past me today," the Australian national champion said afterwards. "I couldn't see a way through but suddenly everybody swung right and I made it into the gap. It was a short, sharp acceleration from there to the finish."

In a year when there are no riders from the United Kingdom, McEwen's seventh Tour stage win came at the expense of one of the few riders in the peloton with British roots. Sweden's Magnus Backstedt, who lives near Cardiff and who is married to a Welsh cyclist, was snapping at McEwen's heels right to the line but had to be satisfied with second when he just failed to squeeze past the Davitamon-Lotto rider.

"Thirty metres more and I'd probably have won." Backstedt said.

If he was in flying form, one underperformer in the final 65kph [40mph] dash for the line was Belgium's star of the race, Tom Boonen. The Quick Step sprinter has already taken two stage wins this year and leads the points competition for the most consistently placed rider.

But Boonen crashed early on in the 228.5km [143mile] stage, injuring his right hip. With his morale presumably equally battered, Boonencould only place seventh behind McEwen, his worst result of the Tour's first week of sprints. The pair now have two wins apiece in this year's race

"It's now 2-2 with Tom but this is not football," McEwen said. "I ride to win stages not to compete against another rider. We have a sporting rivalry with Tom, but we're good friends."

For the two German squads, the 24-hour visit to home soil will have provided a welcome boost to their team spirit. As soon as the race entered Germany, slogans in support of the T-Mobile and and Gerolsteiner teams smothered the final 25 miles of the track, and around 400,000 fans stood six deep on the roadside.

Chances for Boonen, and McEwen - and Backstedt, at 95kg (14st 13lb), the heaviest professional on the Tour - will be severely limited for the next week as the race starts a four-day incursion into the mountains. The first major climb is a relatively uncomplicated affair, the second category Col de la Schlucht in the Vosges mountain range close to the finish today in Gérardmer.

For the overall contenders such as the race leader, Lance Armstrong, with nothing to gain and everything to lose in the crash-ridden bunch sprints, the Tour's shift of terrain comes as a relief.

"One week down, two to go," Armstrong said after the stage. "The real race starts now."

The rider he will be watching the most intently on the climbs is undoubtably Alexandre Vinokourov, from Kazakhstan, currently lying third in the general classification.

"He's a dangerous rider who's always on the attack," Armstrong said. "We'll have to keep a close check on him."

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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