The Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd outgunned his rivals in an anarchic bunch sprint to gain his sixth Tour stage win in seven years yesterday.
Experience, rather than pure speed, was definitely the deciding factor in the fiendishly tricky finish at Saint-Brieuc on Brittany's northern coastline. So it came as no surprise that Hushovd – who turned 30 in January and whose burly 6ft 3in frame has been a familiar figure in the Tour sprints since 2001 – was the rider who raised his arms in the air in victory as a reward.
In the last half-hour the riders had to face everything from constant changes of wind direction and blustering rain showers to a couple of fast, dangerous descents and a long, grinding climb before two roller-coasting kilometres to the finish.
Given the difficult terrain, it was impossible for the sprinters' teams to keep control and as the bunch swooped and dived through Saint-Brieuc it snapped into several pieces.
First Fabian Cancellara and then Filippo Pozzato broke clear in the ensuing chaos – and the sight of the Swiss and Italian riders briefly ahead of the field must have provoked some inward groaning for those sprinters still in contention.
Cancellara has taken everything from the Milan-San Remo Classic this March to a stage in his home race, the Tour of Switzerland, thanks to last-minute moves designed to defy the fast men. As for Pozzato, he won the Tour's last stage to Saint-Brieuc back in 2004 after an equally daredevil attack.
It fell to Hushovd and his Credit Agricole squad to bring in the two renegades, and they did so with two clinically delivered knock-out blows.
"My team-mate Mark Renshaw brought me up to speed with 600 metres to go," Hushovd explained to reporters afterwards – a move which saw Cancellara and Pozzato all but fade out of the running.
"Then about 300 metres from the line, I went for it myself. It had been a tremendously difficult finale, with strong winds, showers, and a break that only got caught on the last climb."
"But I'm not a pure sprinter, I'm someone who gets better when the conditions are difficult – and Saint-Brieuc was certainly a finish like that."
Hushovd seemed completely in his element in Brittany's unpredictable weather conditions, and he attributed part of yesterday's success to "the weather being similar to back home in Norway. You can never tell what's going to happen and have to be ready for everything," he said.
The British sprinter Mark Cavendish probably found the rain showers and windy conditions equally similar to the usual weather conditions in his native Isle of Man, but a two-kilometre climb up a steep Brittany hillside close to the finish was enough to scupper his chances.
"It was a harder finale than I anticipated," Cavendish said . "My team [Columbia] didn't go into the stage with a particular game plan, [we decided] just to leave it until the end to see what happened."
"But I got dropped on the climb, and although I fought my way back on again, I didn't need to. We had enough guys up there already."
Cavendish's team-mates were certainly present in force at the finale, with Columbia's Kim Kirchen making a late charge for second and their young German sprinter, Gerald Ciolek, finishing third.
Their tactics of waiting for the finish were ultimately more profitable than the four-man all- French attack that livened up the first part of the stage.
As the Tour headed in an almost direct line northwards across Brittany's rolling countryside towards Saint-Brieuc, the 2004 Tour leader Thomas Voeckler and his compatriot Sylvain Chavanel made a courageous joint attack.
When they were later joined by two more French riders, Christophe Moreau and his Agritubel team-mate David Lelay, local TV commentators promptly dubbed the breakaway quartet the "Four Musketeers".
Even with one more sharpshooter to play with than in most versions of the story, the foursome had little chance against the fearsome combine of sprinters teams that formed behind. Chavanel made a courageous last stand on the final climb, but he was reeled in 1.5 kilometres from the line.
As for Cavendish, the Briton's best chance of taking part in a bunch sprint will almost certainly come today when – after three stages – the race leaves Brittany's twisting, narrow roads behind and finishes in Nantes.
"It's a better chance for me personally. It's a pan-flat run-in so it's more suitable for me," Cavendish said. "It's one of the finishes I've been targeting for the whole race: it should be a decent opportunity to get a full-on bunch sprint."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
Stage details and standings
Stage 1 (Brest to Plumelec 197km, 122 miles): 1 A Valverde (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne 4hr 36min 07sec; 2 P Gilbert (Bel) Française des Jeux +1sec; 3 J Pineau (Fr) Bouygues Telecom; 4 K Kirchen (Lux) Columbia; 5 R Ricco (It) Saunier Duval; 6 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto; 7 F Schleck (Lux) Team CSC; 8 F Pozzato (It) Liquigas; 9 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank; 10 O Pereiro (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne all same time.
Stage 2 (Auray to Saint-Brieuc, 164km, 101 miles): 1 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole) 3hr 45min 13sec; 2 Kirchen; 3 G Ciolek (Ger) Columbia; 4 R Hunter (SA) Barloworld; 5 E Zabel (Ger) Milram; 6 Y Trofimov (Rus) Bouygues Telecom; 7 Freire; 8 J Casper (Fr) Agritubel; 9 M Elmiger (Swit) AG2R; 10 L Duque (Col) Cofidis all s/t.
Overall classification: 1 Valverde 8hr 21min 20sec; 2 Kirchen +1sec; 3 Freire; 4 J J Cobo (Sp) Saunier Duval; 5 Evans; 6 Pineau; 7 D Millar (GB) Garmin-Chipotle; 8 R Ricco (It) Saunier Duval; 9 Schleck; 10 Pozzato.
King of the mountains: 1 T Voeckler (Fr) Bouygues Telecom 19pts; 2 S Chavanel (Fr) Cofidis 11; 3 B Schroeder (Ger) Milram) 9; 4 D De la Fuente (Sp) Saunier Duval 4; 5 C Moreau (Fr) Agritubel 3; 6 L Jegou (Fr) Française des Jeux 3; 7 G Lequatre (Fr) Agritubel 1; 8 D Le Lay (Fr) Agritubel 1; 9 D Arroyo (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne 1.
Points classification: 1 Kirchen 54 pts; 2 Valverde 49; 3 Hushovd 46; 4 Freire 36; 5 Gilbert 32; 6 Cobo 27; 7 Pineau 26; 8 Ciolek 26; 9 Zabel 26; 10 Hunter 26.Reuse content