Tour de France: Freire flair triumphs in thrilling Dax sprint

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's bunch sprint at Dax - easily the most spectacular of the Tour so far, and won by former World Champion Oscar Freire - could hardly have taken place in a more appropriate location.

Located deep in the pine forests that stretch from Bordeaux down to the foothills of the Pyrenees, Dax was the birthplace of Andre Derrigade, France's demon sprinter of the 1950s.

The winner of 22 Tour stages, Derrigade - present at the finish - would surely have greatly appreciated yesterday's 70kph (44mph) dash for the line, which Freire won by less than half a wheel from the Australian Robbie McEwen.

With 200 metres to go, the rainbow jersey of the reigning World Champion Tom Boonen spearheaded the sprinters' charge and it looked, briefly, as if the Belgian would finally secure the stage win that has eluded him so far.

However, first Erik Zabel managed to outflank Boonen, and then Freire shot through a gap to the German's left to inch a few centimetres ahead. Seeing himself blocked, McEwen performed the most breathtaking manoeuvre of all, changing direction behind the trio to burst through in the centre.

The Australian all but secured his fourth stage win in eight days thanks to his spectacular high-speed swerve, but Freire retained a minimal advantage as the two crossed the line to clinch his second victory of the Tour, albeit one taken by less than six inches.

Unsurprisingly for such an anarchic sprint, Freire or McEwen were not fully in control of their bikes when they crossed the line, and the two leant on each other briefly, their helmets clashing. Post Zidane and the World Cup final, head-butts are uppermost in the French collective consciousness, but this was no rerun of Sunday evening.

Instead the two shook hands as they slowed to a halt, a recognition that Freire's victory had been close, but clean.

Sprinters tend to know if they have won, even when it was as hard-fought an affair as at Dax, but Freire admitted that even he had not been sure - for two reasons. "Firstly, because McEwen came through at the last moment, and secondly because I wasn't sure whether some breakaways from earlier had been reeled in. These sprints in the Tour have all been out of control, but today was the worst - and the hardest to win.

"In fact, I had to ask Robbie afterwards if the break had finished ahead or not."

Today, Freire and the other sprinters will no longer have such worries, as the Tour heads into the Pyrenees for two days' hard climbing.

Always tough for the weaker elements to handle, this year's change from the flatlands to the mountains promises to be even more brutal than usual.

With the exception of one minor incursion into the Ardennes, for the first 10 days the route has been almost completely flat - meaning that riders will have no time to adapt from the easier terrain to handling 3,600m of climbing - as on today's stage - in one day.

At least initially, the top end of the overall classification, led by Ukrainian Serhiy Honchar by a minute on American Floyd Landis, is not likely to alter too greatly. Today the last climb of the day, the Marie Blanque, is so far from the line that the main contenders should be able to regroup beforehand.

Instead, Honchar's rivals will be watching him closely for any signs of weakness that could be exploited on the second, far tougher leg in the Pyrenees tomorrow - and the first where the Tour will truly begin to be won or lost.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'