Tour de France: McEwen takes stage while Wiggins stars in sideshow

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The Independent Online

The Australian Robbie McEwen provided ample confirmation of his domination of the bunch sprints in this year's Tour de France when he blasted to his second stage win in 72 hours.

McEwen is not scared of employing maverick tactics en route to victory but, this time, his win, by a clear bike length over the Spaniard Isaac Galvez, was faultless.

Starting his final acceleration with 200 metres to go, the 34-year-old Australian seized the inside line on a slight left-hand bend leading to the finish in St Quentin. It was the perfect strategy, and McEwen was still increasing his advantage when he raised his arms in the air for the 10th Tour stage win of his career.

He said afterwards that "I couldn't have planned it better if I had scripted it". In fact, planning is very much part of McEwen's success story: he regularly re-views videos of sprints to "work out what went wrong and what could be put right. This particular finish I've been thinking about since a week ago". The big loser on the day was the Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen, who is the first world champion to wear the yellow jersey in 16 years but has so far been unable to crack McEwen's domination of the Tour.

Unsettled at St Quentin when New Zealand's Julian Dean fell almost in front of him, Boonen's rivalry with McEwen has deep roots.

The two are the leaders of Belgium's two top teams, which, in that cycling-mad country, means as big a schism separates their fans as those of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Boonen enjoys pop idol status and, after starting the stage in Belgium in yellow, was drawing all the attention from the media. McEwen, though, is as close to being a Flandrian as it is possible for a foreigner to be - resident in the region and married to a local woman, his Flemish is so fluent there are times he speaks English with a Flemish accent.

Finally, McEwen is nearly a decade older than Boonen, but if the Australian is also fighting a battle against time before he is inevitably overtaken by the younger rider, for now the Australian still appears to have the upper hand.

While the McEwen-Boonen duel was very much the main spectacle of the day, British fans were delighted to see the Londoner Bradley Wiggins prove to be an integral part of the preceding sideshow.

Wiggins was one of five riders who took part in a 180-kilometre break that went away almost as soon as the stage had started in the foothills of the Ardennes in Belgium, led the race across the plains of northern France, and collapsed only when the Tour was almost within sight of St Quentin.

"I wanted to give it a bit of a nudge," the three-times Olympic medallist in 2004, said. "It would have been better if we'd all collaborated, but the French were playing their usual trick of not working to do that. In any case, we almost made it to the finish."

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'