Tour de France: McEwen's best shot pays dividends

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Robbie McEwen made the most of the rapidly dwindling opportunities for the sprinters in this year's Tour to win his second stage and increase his lead in the points competition yesterday.

Robbie McEwen made the most of the rapidly dwindling opportunities for the sprinters in this year's Tour to win his second stage and increase his lead in the points competition yesterday.

Still battling against a left knee injury which forced his team-mates to wait for him six times while training on Monday's rest day, the Australian dug deep to cross the line here less than half-a-wheel ahead of the stage eight winner Thor Hushovd.

"You don't feel the pain in the last 100 metres, you just throw everything you can at the finish, and that's how you win by a few inches," McEwen said.

The sprinters' chances to shine are dwindling rapidly with only two more stages looking certain to end in sprints in the second half of the Tour.

McEwen's fifth Tour win came at the end of a 160.5 kilometre (100 mile) leg which was designed more to write off two of the Tour's historical debts in one day than to have any impact on the classification.

The stage started for the first time in St Léonard de Noblat, the birthplace of the legendary Raymond Poulidor, and then looped back on itself to finish in the department of La Creuse in central France - again, a first in the Tour's 101-year history. The visit to Poulidor's hometown came 24 hours after the 40th anniversary of his most famous duel with the five-times Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, on the slopes of the Puy de Dome.

Dubbed the "eternal second", Poulidor finally managed to drop Anquetil but the yellow jersey - which he would never wear - remained 14 seconds out of his clutches, the closest he came to winning the Tour.

Four decades later, with Anquetil long since dead - "I'm even going to beat you at doing that, Raymond," he told his arch-rival as stomach cancer took hold - Poulidor is still signing dozens of autographs at a race sponsor's stand at the start and cheerfully berating today's generation of French riders for being "too bourgeois" to be successful.

Not that the home nation is actually doing that badly this year: so far the French teams have notched up four stage wins out of a possible 10, and the local race leader Thomas Voeckler is determined to stretch his spell in yellow - already five days to the good - out as long as possible.

His first major challenge comes today, where the Tour tackles no less than nine classified climbs in the Massif Central in a 237km (148 miles) stage - by far the longest of the 2004 race.

The gruelling stage seems certain to bring about the first mass abandons of the Tour, but there are other ways of leaving the race, as the Slovenian Martin Hvastija and the Italian Stefano Casagrande discovered on the rest day when they were "invited" to retire because they are under judicial investigation in Italy over alleged doping offences. The departures may not end there: two other riders, Pavel Padrnos, of the US Postal squad, and Stefano Zanini, of Quick-Step Davitamon, may be questioned over possible offences dating from the 2001 Giro.

The race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, said he was still awaiting official confirmation that this was so, but in any case Padrnos's team leader Lance Armstrong has already spoken out stoutly in his defence. "I know all about this affair and there is no affair," Armstrong said recently to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure.

"I spoke to Jean-Marie Leblanc before the race and he also agreed that there was nothing in that dossier." However, the Italian authorities have yet to concur officially with this conclusion.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly


TOUR DE FRANCE Ninth stage (160.5km, Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat to Gueret) Leading results: 1 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 3hr 32min 55sec; 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole; 3 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis; 4 J Pineau (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère; 5 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 6 J Tombak (Est) Cofidis; 7 T Boonen (Bel) Quick Step-Davitamon; 8 D Hondo (Ger) Gerolsteiner; 9 S Marinangeli (It) Domina Vacanze; 10 I Landaluze (Sp) Euskaltel; 11 J-P Nazon (Fr) AG2R; 12 B Cooke (Aus); 13 S Sunderland (Aus) Alessio-Bianchi; 14 A Davis (Aus) Liberty Seguros; 15 B de Groot (Neth) Rabobank all same time. Leading overall standings (yellow jersey): 1 T Voeckler (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère 36hr 36min 31sec; 2 O'Grady +2min 53sec; 3 S Casar (Fr) +4:06; 4 M Backstedt (Swe) Alessio-Bianchi +6:27; 5 J Piil (Den) Team CSC +7:09. Selected: 6 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +9:35; 10 Zabel +10:06. King of the mountains standings (polka-dot jersey): 1 P Bettini (It) Quick Step-Davitamon 20pts; 2 Tombak 14; 3 R Scholz (Ger) Gerolsteiner 12. Leading overall points standings (green jersey): 1 McEwen 195pts; 2 Hushovd 177; 3 O'Grady 175. Leading team standings: 1 Team CSC 107hr 43min 57sec; 2 Alessio-Bianchi +2min 4sec; 3 Brioches La Boulangère +3:16.