Erik Zabel outscored Mario Cipollini in their sprinting duel for the Tour de France lead, forcing his way to within four seconds of the yellow jersey in a setting that has seen its share of cut and thrust in the past.
The German snatched third place yesterday as another Italian, Nicola Minali, foiled his quest for a stage victory at Le Puy du Fou, a chateau set in an historic theme park near Cholet.
Mock Middle Ages battles are fought out in the grounds, but the skirmishing over the 223 kilometres from Plumelec saw the tall Italian losing ground to the smaller German.
Cipollini's overnight advantage shrank from 14 seconds when, with a final lunge, Zabel snatched a deduction of eight seconds from his overall time with third behind the Frenchman Frederic Moncassin.
In the three intermediate sprints Zabel had come out two seconds better than his rival, and so set today's fifth stage as the big showdown.
Chris Boardman held third overall with a deficit of 35 seconds after finishing among the 71 riders credited with the same time as the victorious Minali.
A change of tactics by Boardman's GAN team brought their sprinter to within a tyre's thickness of a victory.
"Frederic Moncassin is very frustrated, and the team have returned to an old tactic," Boardman said. "We will leave it up to Fred. He is an artist on a bike, and he will find a way through, but if he is looking for a team-mate he is not concentrating on his job. He is better on his own."
For the third day a Frenchman threw down the gauntlet by charging clear of the pack. Thierry Gouvenou and Francois Simon had failed in past stages, and Philippe Gaumont was to be the next.
After the first 33 of his 94-km solo, Gaumont was within 4sec of the leader's jersey, having pulled 11min and 20sec clear. The challenge was accepted and 49km from the finish he had company, but not for long. A fatigued Gaumont slipped quietly into oblivion, finishing last, 11:32 behind the winner.
Again the field of 193 was splintered by a mass pile-up five kilometres from the finish, and Alex Zulle was, for a third day, trapped behind the fallers.
Since his Tour of Switzerland crash that required 12 pins in a shattered collarbone, the Swiss, who but for his injury would have been a contender, has been a nervous passenger in the bunch - especially after his compatriot, Tony Rominger, crashed out on Tuesday, and is now in a Basle hospital for surgery on a complicated fracture of his collarbone.
Spain's Garcia Acosta joined the "collarbone club" yesterday when he and Fabiano Fontanelli of Italy collided with a woman spectator. Fontanelli abandoned with a thigh injury, while the spectator was taken to hospital with serious concussion.
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