Weather conditions, westerly tail wind 17 degrees Celcius.
At the first sprint at Nesles (29km) Frederic Moncassin's looking to build his lead overall and Jan Svorada (Panaria) his green jersey points. It's 1. Svorada (6 secs), 2. Moncassin (4 secs) 3. Marco Traversoni (Carrera -- 2 secs).
By the second sprint, Cuperly (111km), there's a five-man break away and they've been allowed to build 17 minutes. They are Danny Nelissen (Rabobank), Cyril Saugrain (Aubervilliers), Mariano Piccoli (Brescialat), Rolf Jaermann (MG-Technogym) and French national champion Stephane Heulot (GAN), who is playing polcieman for Moncassin. The sprint is 1. Picolli, 2. Heulot, 3. Jaermann.
Before the third sprint -- Saint-Mihiel (206km) -- the GAN team car has come up and told Heulot he can work in the break, which now has a lead of about 8 minutes with only 25km to go. Behind the peloton is being driven along by an alliance of Banesto and ONCE who for a while bring the gap down to 6 mins. The speed splits the peloton into five groups and for a while all the rest of the GAN are trapped in a back group but eventually the peloton merges again. At the the third sprint the result is 1. Picolli 2. Heulot 3 Jaermann, as at the second...
Soon after the Cat 3 Cote du Lion (210km) is ridden amicably by the breakaways, who don't contest Nelissen's going over first to build a lead in the mountains competition.
At 10km to go (km222) the gap is 7 minutes and we see Prudencio Indurain doing a pull on the front, with ONCE's Herminio Diaz-Zabala behind him, then Banesto's Orlando Rodrigues and others of the ONCE-Banesto axis behind them.
As the breakaways head into the finish they start finessing, notable in hindsight is Saugrain sticking resolutely at the back. They have been 200km away. Saugrain's attack is splendid. He's spotted as he passes and the others pick up speed fast, but he wins on sheer stylish speed.
Nice one Cyril! [English soccer joke, sorry America]
4.33 later the buch hurtles in. All looks fine until Svorada suddenly tumbles sideways, it looks as if he'd touched the wheel of the Carrera ahead of him. He brings down Laurent Brochard and Emmanuel Magnien of Festina and Mauro Bettin of Refin. Bjarne Riis (Telekom) hurtles towards the carnage with gritted teeth and somehow stays upright by sticking out his left leg and leaning on the right hand barriers. They all get up. We end up seeing Svorada looking pissed off carrying his bent bike over the line. His green jersey's tattered as are his shorts. And Moncassin's lost his yellow to team-mate Heulot, but he's gained the green from Svorada.
After three wet stages which ended in three mass sprints, five men decided to try their luck as the sun came out at last. They rode in front for some 200 kilometres in the day's 232-km stage from Soissons through the champagne vineyards and the battlefields of World War One.
Saugrain, Heulot, Switzerland's Rolf Jaermann, Dutchman Danny Nelissen and Italian Mariano Piccoli led by a huge 17 minutes at one point before their lead was cut back. They eventually crossed the finishing line four minutes 33 seconds ahead of a bunch containing the main favourites.
The sprint for sixth place, won by Claudio Camin of Italy, was marred by a spectacular crash involving points classification leader Czech Jan Svorada, Italian Mauro Bettin, Frenchman Laurent Brochard and Dane Bjarne Riis. None appeared hurt.
Saugrain, 23, sporting the jersey of the young French Aubervilliers team which received a wild card from the organisers a couple of weeks before the Tour, launched the sprint 200 metres from the finish to beat Nelissen and Jaermann into second and third places. ``We wanted to thank the organisers for inviting us and show them that we deserved to be here,'' a delighted Saugrain said. ``To win a Tour stage is the best thing that can happen to a young rider. It's incredible. I need time to take it in.''
Heulot ended the stage fourth to take the yellow jersey from fellow Frenchman Frederic Moncassin, who came in with the pack and inherited the points classification green shirt lost by Svorada. ``Of course I would have liked to win the stage but the most important thing was the jersey,'' said Heulot, who now has a 22-second lead over Piccoli in the overall standings. Saugrain is third, a further 12 seconds back.
French champion Heulot, a team mate of Moncassin in the Gan stable, really started to work in the last kilometres in the Lorraine region when it became obvious that the leading men would not be caught.
Defending champion Miguel Indurain's Banesto team mates tried their best to wake up a lazy pack and the lead of the men riding in front was melting as they neared the finish by the artificial lake of Madine.
But it was too late and the race favourites -- Indurain, Swiss rider Alex Zuelle, Russian Evgeny Berzin and Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, are now more than four minutes behind Heulot overall.
``I'm suprised the Banestos didn't react earlier,'' said Heulot, who helped out Indurain in the Spanish team for three years before joining Gan this season. ``But I'm not complaining.''
Indurain, bidding for a record sixth win in the world's greatest cycling race, is 11th overall. He is four minutes 17 seconds behind Heulot and cannot expect to pull much back in Thursday's fifth stage over 242 kms to Besancon.
The mighty Spaniard, who won a time-trial in devastating fashion here three years ago and seized the yellow jersey he was to take back to the Champs-Elysees for a third consecutive win, will have to be patient.
The real battle for Indurain and his rivals should start on Saturday when they begin the tough climbs of the Alps.
Stephane Heulot of France took the overall leader's yellow jersey from Gan teammate Frederic Moncassin -- as the leading group of five finished four minutes and 32 seconds ahead of the field.
Heulot, 22 seconds ahead of Italian Mario Piccoli overall, was delighted but realistic about keeping the yellow jersey.
"Perhaps it's for only one day but so many great riders have never worn it and for my wife and child to see it is very special," the 24-year-old national champion said.
Saugrain, 23, riding in his first Tour de France, promised that he would wear a third earring if he won a stage.
"I'm not sure about that promise now! However, this is the most beautiful day of my life, I can't believe it," Saugrain, who rides for one of the poorer French teams Aubervilliers, said.
Saugrain, Heulot and Piccoli, winner of the King of the Mountains in the 1995 and 1996 Tour of Italy, were part of a five man breakaway that escaped after only 39kms.
At one point they and Dutchman Danny Nelissen, the reigning World road race amateur champion, and Swiss rider Rolf Jaermann, winner of the stage into St Gervais in 1992, were 17 minutes ahead.
The peloton never made a concerted effort to chase them down and just tried to limit the deficit that the top riders, such as five time winner Miguel Indurain and Laurent Jalabert, would have to overcome in the next few days.
Heulot was restricted by team orders to not help with the pacemaking as Moncassin was still in yellow, but they changed their strategy with 22kms to go -- allowing Heulot to share the pacemaking.
There was a nasty moment when the peloton went for the sprint finish to gain valuable points towards the green jersey.
Jan Svorada of the Czech Republic, who was in green, went crashing and brought down Laurent Brochard, his second fall in three days, and almost knocked over Danish champion Bjarne Riis.
Svorada limped over the line with an injured right knee -- more with his pride hurt than any serious injury.