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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003
Showdown on the Champs-Elysées
Cooke vs McEwen in Paris finale
Once again the contest for the sprinters' green points jersey went right down to the finish on the Champs-Elysées. Their struggle in the intermediate sprints meant neither of the main players, Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen, took the prestigious Paris stage, making a very happy man of winner Jean-Patrick Nazon. From the thick of the action and its aftermath, Gabriella Ekström analyses the final stage and finds out what the players feel about a classic Tour battle.
If picking up the yellow jersey after the third stage to Saint-Dizier was a magic moment for Jean Delatour's Jean-Patrick Nazon, then he is living a dream tonight in Paris. After being celebrated by thousands and thousands of fans on the Champs-Elysées after the stage, J-P followed the evacuation back to the hotel and found himself once again cheered by enthusiastic bystanders, only this time on the back streets of Paris. The multinational fans had no problem recognising the emerging top sprinter, even while riding his bike in new white sneakers and without his race number pinned to his back pockets.
"I knew I had the legs, but I was unsure about the position I had behind McEwen and Cooke, going in to the sprint," Nazon said after having a shower and a change of clothes. "I had already thought about the fact that they would "faire la guerre" [make war - Ed] and I knew I had to take advantage of them battling it out. Since I was second on the stage to Sedan, I haven't had the opportunity to contest in a sprint, so I was eagerly awaiting this opportunity."
Having lost the coveted green points jersey to Robbie McEwen by just two points on stage 18, Baden Cooke was planning another kind of sprint battle on the grand avenue. Early Sunday morning, mechanics of the FDJeux.com team put 54 chainrings on their riders' bikes, and it was obvious that they were preparing the lead-out for Baden. The first sprint of the day stirred the peaceful peloton when the riders hit the Champs-Elysées for the first time. The fun of the last stage turned into a serious race with a sudden change of speed when the first attack came on Rue Rivoli. One of Robbie McEwen's Lotto-Domo team-mates led the peloton over the Place de la Concorde, and the clover-leafed FDJeux.com train was not far behind. The FDJeux.com riders overtook the Lotto rider shortly after entering the avenue, and Baden Cooke was right at their wheels where he needed to be. Robbie McEwen followed him just as closely, but when they approached the line, Baden had already got the better out of Robbie.
Going into the second sprint shortly after, the two Australians were now equal on points, and the outcome of the last bonus sprint would decide who would approach the finale with the biggest confidence. Again, it was FDJeux.com that set the pace, but this time McEwen jumped early and surprised Cooke who had to get out from the wheel he was following before chasing after Robbie. By then, McEwen was already too far ahead, and Cooke's second place left him two points short of the jersey, again.
When the bell rang with one lap to go, and only 6500 metres remained of the Centenary Tour, the FDJeux.com team lined up for a sprint once again, their third in less than two hours.
"I asked Carlos [Da Cruz] if he had the legs, and he said 'no'," Baden's lead-out man Brad McGee told Cyclingnews. "Well, I didn't have them either, but I told him we'd do it anyway!"
Crossing the Place de la Concorde for the last time this summer, all the sprinters were lined up at the front. McEwen and Cooke for the points, J-P Nazon for the stage win, Stuart O'Grady for the Centenary prize and Luca Paolini just for the heck of it. Taking advantage of the fact that the battling Aussies were both tired, J-P Nazon got his wheel over the line first , and then turned his head in disbelief to see if he had really won the sprint of his life. Behind Nazon, Cooke and McEwen threw their bikes over the line, both desperate to finish second. After a few seconds of confusion, McEwen rode up to Cooke and confirmed that he was indeed the winner of the sprinters' classification.
While waiting for Baden's prize ceremony to finish, Brad McGee commented on the performance put up by his young friend.
"Well, what can I say? It worked out really well in the end. I'm just amazed how relaxed and calm Baden stayed, even after the second sprint that he lost. He was much calmer than I was, that's for sure. He just knew!"
Robbie, beaten with the smallest of margins, was disappointed but calm when Cyclingnews caught up with him outside his team bus.
"I know I gave everything I had. Of course it is disappointing to lose by two points after having raced for three weeks, but that's the way it goes in racing. I gave everything I had, and so did Baden and it was a very close finish. At first Baden wasn't sure if he was ahead of me, but I told him straight away that he was. It was the opposite scenario last year when I won, and that was very, very nice. I figure I might have a problem going to sleep tonight, and maybe when I look at the race again, I'll think that I could have done a better sprint, but at the moment, I knew that I gave my best, and that's all I can ask of myself."
When the barriers had been taken away and the traffic was once again controlling Champs Elysées, and Baden was settling down in his hotel room, he took Cyclingnews through the last hours of racing.
"I felt very confident after the first sprint, and I was surprised that I beat Robbie that easily. All that confidence was lost in the next sprint, when I saw how he came past me. After those sprints I was really hurting, and Brad suffered from a hunger flat, but guys from my team kept coming up at my side, bringing me up, and then suddenly there was Brad."
"At that point, Quick.Step had a big lead-out going, but Brad took me up to a striking position behind Zabel. I threw it in the 11 and went for it with 250 to go. Last year I made a mistake and went with 300 to go, and that was a bit too early. Robbie and I leaned on each other a bit, but it was a matter of both of us moving towards the other. Right after the line, he rode up to me and told me I had got it."
During the race, Baden's pre-Tour ambition to win at Champs Elysées had become less important.
"I'm not surprised that J-P came past us. He is a very fast guy and both Robbie and I were tired from the previous sprints. The fact that he won doesn't matter to me at all. In fact, I didn't even think about it before you brought it up. I was only concerned about the jersey. I always thought I could win the jersey one day, but I thought it would happen when I was 30 or something, and here I am, having done it at 24!"