Tour de France: Belgium's spirits lifted by McEwen's sprint finish

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The Independent Online

Robbie McEwen may hail from the other side of the planet, but barring an actual Belgian, you could hardly have asked for a more local winner of the second stage of the Tour de France.

Robbie McEwen may hail from the other side of the planet, but barring an actual Belgian, you could hardly have asked for a more local winner of the second stage of the Tour de France.

The 32-year-old Australian has spent the bulk of his eight-year career riding for Dutch and Belgian teams, and his current squad, Lotto-Domo, is sponsored by the Belgian national lottery. He lives in Brakel, the city regarded as the hub of the country's cycling, and is married to a local ophthalmologist.

As if that were not enough to make him Belgian by adoption, McEwen rattled off most of his explanations for the fourth Tour stage win of his career in high-speed Flemish, a language he dominates so well he sometimes has problems remembering the equivalent word in English.

Already second on the first stage, his win was timely, given that there are only eight Belgians in this year's Tour peloton, one short of a record low. It is a statistic which has rendered it tricky for one of the most cycling-mad nations to feel they were getting their money's worth in the three stages of the sport's blue riband event run on local soil this year.

But McEwen's anarchic sprinting style and tendency to ride just within the regulations proved an advantage here. He was in his element in a finale featuring both a large roundabout and a long-left hand curve in the last kilometre.

It was a panorama waiting for crashes to happen, and on the final corner the French sprinter Jimmy Casper came close to taking down the field when his front wheel slipped and he spun across the road.

Fortunately only one other rider was affected, Norway's Kurt-Asle Arvesen, who sat clutching his head in his hands, presumably to avoid further damage as nearly 200 riders roared past just inches away from him at 60kph. Both riders suffered heavy bruising, but were able to finish.

However, the only other Norwegian in the Tour, Thor Hushovd, was busy making it into the history books as he crossed the line in second place behind McEwen.

The burly 25-year-old gained enough bonus seconds ­ 12 ­ in the process to leap-frog ahead of the Swiss prologue winner Fabian Cancellara in the overall classification, thereby becoming the first ever Norwegian to lead the Tour.

Problems with his rear gearing had almost put an end to his attempt on yellow 15 kilometres from the finish, but thanks to a chain of green-clad Crédit Agricole riders, Hushovd successfully wormed his way back through the line of following team cars behind the peloton before getting down to business.

Crédit Agricole and the other sprint teams had moments earlier put paid to a 160km break containing the race's one Irishman, AG2R's Mark Scanlon.

Riding his first Tour, Scanlon was one of six riders who went clear after just 10km of racing and who stubbornly hung on to a four-minute advantage up until the final hour.

"Our advantage was never big enough to have any real chance of staying away, but in any case it was worth a try." he said afterwards.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

SECOND STAGE (123 miles, Charleroi to Namur): 1 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 4hr 18min 39sec; 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole; 3 J-P Nazon (Fr) AG2R; 4 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 5 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis; 6 J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2R; 7 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 8 A Petacchi (It) Fassa Bortolo; 9 G Glomser (Aut) Saeco; 10 M Cipollini (It) Domina Vacanze; 11 P Wrolich (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 12 T Boonen (Bel) Quick Step; 13 A Vierhouten (Neth) Lotto-Domo; 14 S Calzati (Fr) RAGT; 15 B Cooke (Aus) Fdjeux; 16 T Voeckler (Fr) Brioches; 17 F Renier (Fr) Brioches; 18 M Elmiger (Swit) Phonak; 19 S Commesso (It) Saeco; 20 L Brochard (Fr) AG2R all same time. Overall classification: 1 Hushovd 9hr 05min 42sec; 2 F Cancellara (Swit) Fassa Bortolo +0.08sec; 3 McEwen +0.17; 4 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +0.18; 5 J Voigt (Ger) CSC +0.23; 6 J I Gutierrez Palacios (Sp) Banesto +0.24; 7 O Pereiro (Sp) Phonak +0.27; 8 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole +0.28; 9 B Julich (US) Team CSC; 10 G Hincapie (US) US Postal p/b Berry Floor both s/t; 11 J E Gutierrez (Sp) Phonak +0.30; 12 A Vicioso Arcos (Sp) Liberty Seguros +0.31; 13 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank; 14 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC both s/t; 15 K-A Arvesen (Nor) Team CSC +0.32; 16 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis +0.33; 17 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile Team s/t; 18 F Landis (US) US Postal +0.34; 19 T Hamilton (US) Phonak; 20 B Eisel (Aut) both s/t.