Tour de France: Hushovd's late charge pays dividends

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The Independent Online

A powerful last lunge by Thor Hushovd earned the Norwegian sprinter his second Tour stage win as the race ended its long march from Liège in Belgium to Brittany in the far-flung north-west of France with an unusually complex bunch sprint at the summit of a nasty little drag on one of the coastal resort's seven hills.

A powerful last lunge by Thor Hushovd earned the Norwegian sprinter his second Tour stage win as the race ended its long march from Liège in Belgium to Brittany in the far-flung north-west of France with an unusually complex bunch sprint at the summit of a nasty little drag on one of the coastal resort's seven hills.

The climb proved too steep for most of the more heavily built sprinters, the bulk of whom ended up losing 20 seconds on a first group of 94 finishers.

Clearly relishing terrain as unpleasantly undulating as the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic in April - which he has won twice - the Italian one-day specialist Paolo Bettini opened the last salvo of attacks at the foot of the last kilometre-long climb. Once Bettini's charge had fizzled out, a more determined move by the Luxembourg national champion, Kim Kirchen, gained the Fassa Bortolo pro a handful of metres as he dodged round the last left-hand bend some 200 metres from the finish.

However he was outstripped by Hushovd - another national champion - with an impressive final surge that took him past Kirchen almost on the line.

The burly Norwegian made no bones about why he had managed to hit the jackpot on such tricky terrain. "I'm one of the strongest on uphill sprints. I had so much power it was really easy, and I had a lot of confidence, and knew if everything went well I could win." The Crédit Agricole pro has already spent one day in yellow early on in the race and another in the green jersey worn by the points competition leader, and yesterday he received the kisses from a third set of hostesses.

A pleasant enough change for the 26-year-old, but what has not altered for the Tour has been the weather, with rain falling virtually non-stop on every stage since it set out from Belgium a week ago last Saturday. Light showers in Liège were followed by downpours in Charleroi and torrential showers on the road to Chartres, and on Saturday even the odd sheet of sea-water driven in from the Atlantic by strong winds mixed with fine drizzle briefly soaked the riders.

Yesterday's rain on the 104-mile stage from Lamballe was the incessant driving sort that more than explained why the surrounding landscape for the peloton as they squelched south from Lamballe to Quimper consisted of one vast mass of sodden clump of bracken after another, together with verdant meadows and broad dense hedges highly reminiscent of the West Country.

This is all a far cry from yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler's home region of Martinique, but the 24-year-old Frenchman seemed determined to hold on to his lead for as long as possible despite the foul weather. "I feel well-protected by my team-mates and confident in the short-term at least." Voeckler, who has now spent four days in yellow, said afterwards.

But he added that yesterday had proved slightly harder going than anticipated given that Jakob Piil, one of three daylong breakaways, was just seven minutes behind him on the general classification and could have threatened the Brioches la Boulangere rider's overall lead.

Piil, one of the most determined riders when it comes to getting into moves, had already spent 257 miles up the road prior to stage seven, and he added a further 86 to his total before the trio were reeled in when the race dropped out of Britanny's Black Mountain ranges towards the coast.

If not able yet to repeat his 2003 stage win at Marseille - which was also taken thanks to a long break - Piil's repeated attacks have at least earned him the unofficial title of the Tour's most prolific baroudeur, or rider who spends most time off the front, of 2004.

Not that all the riders were able to take everything they have won so far from the Tour with them on their hour-long flight to central France last night. The US Postal rider Jose Azevedo, the only Portuguese rider this year, would probably have been over the limits on the hand-luggage had he tried to check in with the large Brittany foal he was given by the Lamballe local council at the start yesterday in recognition of their town being twinned with the town of Oliverio da Bano in Portugal.

In any case, given his role as a key climber for Lance Armstrong, with the Pyrénées fast looming on the horizon, long before he can test his ability to handle four-hooved means of transport, Azevedo's skill on two pedals are likely to be first put to the test.

* Nicole Cooke has won the women's Giro d'Italia - arguably the toughest race on the women's circuit - at her first attempt. The Welsh rider, 21, served notice of her ability to win an Olympic medal by taking the penultimate stage on Saturday, and held on to the overall lead on Sunday's ceremonial last stage.

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