Tour De France: Kirsipuu's victory puts Petacchi in the shade

The look of total surprise on the face of the veteran sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu as he crossed the line in first place on stage one of the Tour was more than indicative of how close a call it had been for the 34-year-old Estonian.

Kirsipuu held off the Australian Robbie McEwen by less than half a wheel as the Tour moved west from one grimy, Belgian industrial sprawl - Liège - to the equally unappealing combination of slag heaps and blighted steel works surrounding the city of Charleroi.

The Estonian rider admitted that it had been touch and go at the end of the 202.5 kilometre (125.8 mile) stage, so much so that: "I only knew that I had won it when I saw McEwen looking miserable afterwards. But I had a good lead-out from [Thor] Hushovd, and I already reckoned that I had a chance because the slight uphill at the finish meant that strength was as important as pure speed."

Despite the total number of victories in his 12-year-career now stretching well into three figures, Kirsipuu has been so unsure of his chances in bunch sprints that in recent years he has preferred to chance his arm in breaks rather than mass gallops for the line - a policy which has gained him two of his total of four Tour stages.

Confirmation that he was close to being put out to grass by his AG2R team came last December when a younger French sprinter, Jean-Patrick Nazon, the winner of last year's final stage on the Champs Elysées, was signed to take over his role.

"But me and JP talked with 30 kilometres to go and agreed that whoever was ahead with 500 metres left to the line would go for the sprint," Kirsipuu said, although his rather pathetic one-armed victory salute - somewhat akin to the Queen's style of waving in processions - did not suggest he had felt so confident about the final result.

If Kirsipuu broke out of a seemingly irreversible decline on the rain-soaked roads of Wallonia, the conclusions drawn from 24 hours of racing by the Tour's most senior sprinter of them all, Mario Cipollini, who is back on the race for the first time since 1999, were not nearly so encouraging. In just one day things already seem to be turning pear-shaped for the 37-year-old.

Given to statements almost as outrageously pretentious as the skintight suits in which he likes to show off his 6ft-plus frame in the prologues of major Tours - Saturday's was a blue-and-black affair that could well have the producers of Batman filing law suits for plagiarism - Cipollini had claimed in Liège that his Tour comeback "was inspirational to me, it unleashes my force".

However, the "Lion King", as the Italian sprinter is nicknamed, was barely to able to claw his way back on to the rear end of the peloton on the series of tiny climbs half-way through the stage. Then to cap it all, he crashed, fortunately with no injuries as serious as the ones that forced him to abandon the Giro d'Italia in May.

If Kirsipuu's victory was unexpected, and Cipollini's 38th place in the sprint the umpteenth poignant reminder that one of cycling's most charismatic riders is getting to be over the hill when it comes to getting over the hills, the absence of last year's top sprinter in the Tour, Alessandro Petacchi, from the frontrunning at Charleroi was nothing short of unusual.

Petacchi finished a below-expectations eighth, for all his team had a double vested interest in producing a bunch sprint given that it was the best way of ensuring that his team-mate Fabian Cancellara would hold on to the yellow jersey.

Hardly the best of results for a rider who raised the post-war record for stage wins in the Giro to nine just two months ago and who took four stages in the Tour de France last year.

However, his Fassa Bortolo squad could draw ample consolation from the fact that Cancellara clung on to yellow for a second day, albeit by a mere four seconds, from Hushovd.

For Lance Armstrong, whose second place in Saturday's prologue was almost the equivalent to victory given the time gaps of nearly 20 seconds he established over key rivals Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton, stage one was simply an exercise in staying upright.

Given the dangerous conditions, he had no intention of trying to move into yellow in the same stage finish, at Charleroi, where Jacques Anquetil, the first rider to try for Armstrong's objective of six Tours, had moved into the lead in the Tour of 1957 en route to his first victory in Paris.

Unlike Armstrong, who stayed out of trouble, key rival Hamilton crashed mid-way through the stage and needed the assistance of two team-mates to return to the peloton.

Hardly an auspicious first full day's racing for a rider who has already lost 18 seconds to Armstrong in the prologue and is presumably still painfully aware that on the opening stage of the 2003 Tour another crash had seen him suffer a broken collarbone and limit his aspirations for overall victory. Yesterday, he came within a whisker of the recent history repeating itself.

Bradley McGee may be forced to quit after two days due to the hip problem that hampered him yesterday. The Australian was left behind on a climb halfway through the stage and eventually finished next to last, 6min 5sec behind Kirsipuu.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

Tour De France results

Saturday

6.1km (3.8 miles) Prologue (Liège): 1 F Cancellara (Swit) Fassa Bortolo 6min 50sec; 2 L Armstrong (US) US Postal p/b Berry Floor +0.02sec; 3 J I Gutierrez Palacios (Sp) Banesto +0.08; 4 B McGee (Aus) Fdjeux.com +0.09; 5 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole +0.10; 6 O Pereiro (Sp) Phonak +0.11; 7 J Voigt (Ger) CSC same time; 8 C Moreau (Fr) Crédit Agricole +0.12; 9 B Julich (US) CSC; 10 G Hincapie (US) US Postal both s/t; 11 J-E Gutierrez (Sp) Phonak +0.14; 12 A Vicioso Arcos (Sp) Liberty Seguros +0.15; 13 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank; 14 C Sastre (Sp) CSC both s/t; 15 K-A Arvesen (Nor) CSC +0.16; 16 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile +0.17; 17 F Landis (US) US Postal +0.18; 18 T Hamilton (US) Phonak s/t; 19 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal +0.19; 20 A Peron (It) CSC s/t.

Yesterday

Stage 1: Liege-Charleroi, 202.5 km (125.8 miles): 1 J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2R Prevoyance 4hr 40min 29sec; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole; 4 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 5 J-P Nazon (Fr) AG2R Prevoyance; 6 B Cooke (Aus) Fdjeux.com; 7 K-A Arvesen (Nor) Team CSC; 8 A Petacchi (It) Fassa Bortolo; 9 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 10 A Davis (Aus) Liberty Seguros; 11 J Engoulvent (Fr) Cofidis - Le Creidit Par Telephone; 12 J Casper (Fr) Cofidis - Le Credit Par Telephone; 13 J Pineau (Fr) Brioches La Boulangere; 14 S Marinangeli (It) Domina Vacanze; 15 S Calzati (Fra) R.A.G.T. Semences - MG Rover; 16 M Backstedt (Swe) Alessio-Bianchi; 17 S Dumoulin (Fr) AG2R Prevoyance; 18 D Becke (Ger) Illes Balears - Banesto; 19 D Etxebarria (Sp) Euskaltel - Euskadi; 20 L Brochard (Fr) AG2R Prevoyance s/t.

General classification after stage 1: 1 F Cancellara (Swit) Fassa Bortolo 4hr 47min 11sec; 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole +0.04sec; 3 L Armstrong (US) US Postal p/b Berry Floor +0.10; 4 J Voigt (Ger) Team CSC +0.15; 5 J-I Gutierrez Palacios (Sp) Illes Balears - Banesto +0.16; 6 O Pereiro (Sp) Phonak Hearing Systems +0.19; 7 C Moreau (Fr) Credit Agricole +0.20; 8 B Julich (US) Team CSC s/t; 9 G Hincapie (US) US Postal p/b Berry Floor s/t; 10 J-E Gutierrez (Sp) Phonak Hearing Systems +0.22; 11 A-V Arcos (Sp) Liberty Seguros +0.23; 12 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank s/t; 13 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC s/t; 14 K-A Arvesen (Nor) Team CSC +0.24; 15 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis - Le Credit Par Telephone +0.25; 16 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile Team s/t; 17 F Landis (US) US Postal p/b Berry Floor +0.26; 18 T Hamilton (US) Phonak Hearing Systems s/t; 19 B Eisel (Aut) Fdjeux.com s/t; 20 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal p/b Berry Floor +0.27.

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