France continued their winning streak in the Tour yesterday when Pierrick Fédrigo netted the country's third victory in five stages by outsprinting Franco Pellizotti of Italy.
Local journalists whooped and cheered in the press room when Fédrigo roared across the line almost a bike length clear of his breakaway rival, completing France's most successful first week of the Tour since 1996.
Last July, the French had to wait almost until Paris before scraping just one stage victory. But Thomas Voeckler soloed home in Perpignan last Wednesday, and then his compatriot Brice Feillu doubled the host nation's stage tally when he dropped his breakaway companions for a spectacular win in Andorra on Friday.
Then Fédrigo made it a hat-trick for France with a perfectly calculated lunge for the finish line in Tarbes yesterday, later calling it a "perfect conclusion" to a breakaway that had started after only 12km of racing.
Perhaps because Fédrigo had already won a Tour stage in similar circumstances in 2006 – outsprinting another Italian, Salvatore Commesso, in another two-man breakaway – the B-Box Bouygues rider had an almost clinical explanation for his success.
"First there were four of us, then three and then after tackling the Tourmalet [a 17.1km giant of a Pyrenean climb] there were just us two on the front," Fédrigo explained. "I didn't expect that we would be able to stay away, but finally the bunch miscalculated and let us get to the finish."
While France continue to rack up the stage wins, Fédrigo's success was sandwiched between two strong indications of Lance Armstrong's ambitions overall. The first came when the Texan personally chased after an early breakaway before eventually easing back on the throttle.
Armstrong's action was strongly reminiscent of the seven-times Tour champion at the height of his power, when he would all but single out which of his rivals were allowed to break away and which he would instruct his team to chase down relentlessly.
Then after the stage Armstrong used an interview on French television to make it plain – finally – he was back for an eighth Tour victory, and that he considers team-mate Alberto Contador his most important challenger.
Asked if he would sign for third place in Paris now, Armstrong said he would not. "[But] Contador's very strong and very ambitious. This year's not going to be easy," he concluded.
Given that the top two contenders to finish in yellow in Paris are in the same team, Armstrong admitted the situation was "a little tense" – tension that will now be resolved only in the Alps, still a week's racing away.Reuse content