Erik Zabel yesterday achieved the breakthrough that the sprinters of the Tour de France had sought since Mario Cipollini's yellow shadow fell over the race three days ago.
For once the fast-finishing Italian was not hovering as Zabel forced his way to the front in an uphill sprint at Plumelec to win the 224-kilometre leg from Vire, and pose a new threat to Cipollini's reign.
The Tuscan's overnight advantage of 36 seconds over Chris Boardman melted to 14 seconds clear of Zabel, the German team-mate of the 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis, who took third yesterday.
Britain's yellow-jersey for a day cut his losses to 27sec on Cipollini, and Boardman is third overall after finishing in the same time as Zabel and 18 others at this Breton town.
Cipollini was 11sec adrift as Zabel picked up 26 crucial seconds with a sprint that had until now failed to tame the man who likes to be known as the "Lion King". Cipollini collects nicknames as often as he changes the colour of his racing shorts, but that short hill to the chequered flag took the snarl out of his power finishing.
Officials also took 200 Swiss francs (pounds 90), the currency of world cycling, from his wallet for a third day for wearing shorts that matched his leader's jersey instead of the regulation black. His team manager, Antonio Salutini, was again fined SFr1,000 for allowing it to happen.
Cipollini also lost out in an intermediate sprint snatched by Zabel, who is back in the green jersey of the leading points scorer, which he carried to the final podium in Paris last year.
During the last 30 kilometres Francois Simon set off on a solo run, doubtless inspired by racing through Saint-Meen-le-Grand, the birthplace of Louison Bobet who twice won the Tour.
The Frenchman's quest for glory ended five kilometres from the finish, but he missed the mass pile-up that split the field. With riders climbing out of ditches on both sides of the road, the tangle of bodies and bikes cleared to reveal Switzerland's Tony Rominger, fourth overall, with a "complex fracture" of his right collar-bone.
TOUR DE FRANCE Third stage (224km, Vire to Plumelec): 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 4hr 54min 33sec; 2 F Vandenbroucke (Bel) Mapei; 3 B Riis (Den) Telekom; 4 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE; 5 D Rebellin (It) La Francaise des Jeux; 6 A Olano (Sp) Banesto; 7 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal; 8 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom; 9 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina; 10 P Chanteur (Fr) Casino; 11 R Virenque (Fr) Festina; 12 B Hamburger (Den) TVM; 13 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank; 14 L Brochard (Fr) Festina; 15 C Boardman (GB) GAN; 16 A Elli (It) Casino; 17 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal; 18 P Lino (Fr) Big Mat; 19 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme; 20 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise des Jeux all same time. Selected: 32 M Sciandri (GB) La Francaise des Jeux +16sec.
Overall standings: 1 Cipollini (It) Saeco, 16hr 10min 12sec; 2 Zabel (Ger) Telekom +14sec; 3 C Boardman (GB) GAN +27; 4 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +29; 5 F Vandenbroucke (Bel) Mapei +33; 6 A Olano (Sp) Banesto +37; 7 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE +39; 8 P Lino (Fr) Big Mat +52; 9 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN +55; 10 O Camenzind (Swit) Mapei +55; 11 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank +56; 12 D Rebellin (It) FDJ +57; 13 D Nardello (It) Mapei +1min 05sec; 14 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal Service +1:08; 15 F Andreu (US) Cofidis +1:11; 16 R Virenque (Fr) Festina s/t; 22 B Riis (Den) Telekom +1:32. Selected: 36 M Sciandri (GB) La Francaise des Jeux +2:10.Reuse content