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94th Tour de France - ProT

France, July 7-29, 2007

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Stage 18 - Friday, July 27: Cahors - Angoulême, 211km

Live commentary by Laura Weislo and Bjorn Haake

Complete live report

Live coverage starts: 12:30 CEST
Estimated finish: 17:45 CEST

Bonjour to the Cyclingnews coverage of the 18th stage, which is the last one suited for a breakaway, one day before the final time trial. Today the riders will cover 211 kilometres, bringing them from Cahors to Angoulême. The race will start out with a few cat 4 rises, but after the feed zone it is very flat and the sprinters will try to keep it together in the finale. It depends of course how their legs are and maybe a break will succeed in the end. Today marks the first day that race leader Alberto Contador gets to wear yellow.

12:53 CEST    15km/196km to go
Several attacks were unsuccessful so far. Now, in the côte de Salvezou, the first difficulty of the day, Sandy Casar and Jérôme Pineau, are slightly ahead

12:55 CEST   
Frederik Willems (Liquigas) joins the duo and sprints past them on the top of the climb to get the points, ahead of Pineau and Casar.

12:59 CEST   
But now the escape is already over, which gives us time to reflect why on earth Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is wearing the white jersey, being in third place. Ok, so Contador leads the kid's classification, but is required to wear yellow. That leaves Soler, but he is required to wear the polka dot jersey of the best climber. Which leaves third placed Txurruka, who is 45 minutes behind in white.

13:06 CEST   
The start in today's race was in Cahors, which is where Frenchman Jacky Durand celebrated an emotional win in 1994. A stage win is great but a French winner is even better!

13:07 CEST   
Boogerd tries an attack to save the Tour for Rabobank. There is a group of four in front now.

13:09 CEST    23km/188km to go
Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom), Frederik Willems (Liquigas) and Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux) have now succeeded to break clear and are less than 1km from the top.

13:11 CEST   
Axel Merckx is in hot pursuit, but the order over the top is Laurent Lefèvre, Boogerd and Casar.

13:15 CEST   
And another dog becomes famous for causing an accident. This time the victims are Frederik Willems and Sandy Casar, which leaves two guys at the front.

13:19 CEST   
The crash wasn't too bad, but Willems has been caught by the field. Axel Merckx, who rides his last Tour, is 1'30" behind. The peloton is 4'00" behind

Frederik Willems
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13:23 CEST    35km/176km to go
We are approaching the third climb of the day. The two leaders are now well clear of the peloton, which is at 4'45". The riders just entered the department of the Dordogne. It is an incredibly pretty area, and a canoe tour on the river Dordogne is an absolute highlight.

13:30 CEST    39km/172km to go
Then two riders in front waited for Casar, who was delayed by the crash, and Merckx. With the lead sky rocketed to over seven minutes it looks like we have the situation of the day. The remaining question will be if the sprinters have the desire and will to bring it back before the day's end.

Current situation

  • Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom), Axel Merckx (T=Mobile), Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux) and Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom)
  • Peloton at 7.20

13:39 CEST   
The attacks helped the average speed in the first hour, as 42.6km were covered after 60 minutes of racing.

Cadel Evans at today's start
Photo ©: Gregor Brown
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13:51 CEST   
The Dordogne will be crossed in a couple of kilometres. In the mean time Cadel Evans still believes he can win the Tour, but admits it will be a hard fight. The Aussie is 1'53" behind Contador in the overall. The flatter course should suit Evans, though. But of course we know what a yellow jersey can do for motivation. Contador has the advantage of starting last, 3 minutes behind Evans. But if the Predictor-Lotto captain has a good day, there will be no disadvantage, May the best man win! We are looking forward to an exciting day tomorrow.

13:56 CEST    59km/152km to go
The quartet up front passes the Dordogne and head on. They have covered almost 60km. The field is now 9 minutes behind and still get o cross the river which the department is named after.

13:59 CEST   
The front group is about 6 kilometres before the first of two sprints today. But it is unlikely they will contest it. A break like this often shares the work and the prizes equally, at least that early in the race. It may be a different story for the second sprint, located 19km before the finish. That could already be a setup for one of the guys not too confident in their sprinting capabilities.

14:07 CEST    66km/145km to go
So the break that got clear contains Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux), Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) and Axel Merckx (T-Mobile). Boogerd will be hoping to save the day for the Dutch, who had a rough couple of days, thanks to a Dane.

14:08 CEST   
Cyclingnews’ Brecht Decaluwé spoke with Dirk Demol this morning, directeur sportif with the Discovery Channel team.

He was replying to a comment made by Ag2r Prévoyance boss Vincent Lavenu in a French newspaper today, in which Lavenu said that he didn’t trust maillot jaune Alberto Contador.

Demol hit back by saying, “you should ask him how it is possible that his riders were flying last year and doing nothing this year?” Ouch..

Demol said that he has confidence in Contador for tomorrow’s time trial, “but of course everybody is getting tired.”

14:08 CEST   
Axel Merckx is looking for glory in his last season as a professional, relocating to his wife's home country of Canada. Boogerd also is at the end of his professional cycling career. Wouldn't that be a great showdown?

Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel)
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14:15 CEST   
Some readers have asked how it's possible that a few riders have negative points. No, they didn't ride across the line backwards, but riders get small fines all the time, which can include monetary measures, added time to the overall or subtracted points. Well, and if you don't have a point already you end up with a negative account... Leipheimer btw got a 10 second time penalty when he had a flat tyre and got a little more than a push from the team car to get back to the group. He also was fined 50 Swiss Francs.

14:18 CEST   
Brecht Decaluwé also spoke to Contador’s team-mate Levi Leipheimer. He was asked if he thought that Contador could win overall. “We will see it day by day,” he said. “We have to get though this day first. Many things can happen. But I think that Contador should get it tomorrow.”

What about himself – did he think it was possible for him to move from third to first overall in the TT, winning the Tour?

“I am too far behind Contador so we will support him,” he answered. “But as regards moving into second, we will see.”

14:20 CEST   
In the mean time there is a note on German TV channel ZDF that states that the Tour de France is cancelled, and a summary of the 18 stage will follow at 5:50pm. We guess what they really mean is that its broadcast is cancelled as the riders are clearly rolling, more than 70 kilometres already...

14:23 CEST   
We also had a reader tell us that he overheard some cycling experts talking about one prominent rider in the Tour. His name: Gerold Steiner. He is from Germany and 100% liquid. Doping tests are rather easy to do, but Mr. Steiner has difficulty with the blood tests, being made 100% out of mineral water. It's probably for that reason we haven't seen much of him this year. On a more serious note the team Gerolsteiner, and especially its manager, Hans-Michael Holczer, is very outspoken against doping.

14:26 CEST   
The weather today is very nice, about 25 degrees centigrade. No wonder the peloton takes it easy and lets the break get away. The time gap is now 12 minutes.

Church along the race route
Photo ©: Gregor Brown
(Click for larger image)

14:31 CEST   
In our coverage we mentioned the inevitable French church occasionally and our reporter on the ground, Gregor Brown, took on the task of providing you with a picture. Here is one of the duller ones. It must be nice living in France, always knowing what time it is, without even trying.

14:32 CEST   
Proving there is no change today, Carlos Sastre (CSC) will start the time trial just 27 seconds ahead of Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel – Euskadi). He told Cyclingnews’ Gregor Brown that he was not too worried, saying that he expects to do a better time trial than the Basque rider and thus hold onto his fourth place overall. “I have known him a long time and I am confident,” he said.

14:39 CEST   
Sylvain Chavanel, one of the Cofidis riders who was removed from the Tour following the withdrawal of the team, said today that in his team there "is no organized doping. I'll be on the Champs-Elysées Sunday and the anti-doping fight has my full support." His brother Sébastien is still in the race as he races for Française des Jeux and wouldn't be nice if the sprinter could win Sunday in front of his brother in the stands.

14:41 CEST    89km/122km to go
The peloton passes Le Bugue 13 minutes after the race leader. The spectators are out in full force on this sunny Friday.

14:45 CEST   
Stage two winner Gert Steegmans (Quick.Step – Innergetic) said this morning that he didn’t expect there to be a bunch sprint today. He said that the team would not work for one in chasing any breaks, and that the riders’ priority was to work for Tom Boonen, keeping him out of trouble.

He added that he was happy with his Tour, but now was looking forward to returning to Belgium.

14:48 CEST   
Oops, a young spectator, holding a few balloons is all excited to see the Tour arrive. However she then lets go of the balloons. She quickly recaptures them and continues cheering. Phew.

14:51 CEST   
Discovery is leading the peloton, but are just keeping things rolling along. They are riding through the Périgord Noir. It is an amazingly pretty area. The field is now hitting Journiac, and are still almost a quarter of an hour behind the break.

14:53 CEST   
The field is in the feed zone. Paolo Bossoni (Lampre-Fondital) grabs his musette, the sleeves all rolled up as it is nice and warm.

14:54 CEST   
Gregor Brown also spoke to Matteo Tosatto, who was in the break yesterday and finally placed sixth. He said that the attacking by Voigt blew his legs. He said if he felt okay today he might try once again.

14:54 CEST   
It's lunchtime for the peloton, and the break gets a few more minutes as the Discovery Channel team on front sits up to sift through their feed bags. It's up to 14'11 at the moment.

14:58 CEST   
Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) has grabbed his bag, but the feeds are often on slight uphills, to slow things down. The pace is not fast, but requires some concentration by the riders. The spectators have lined both sides of the road. The feed zone is a good place to watch the riders go by and even grab a souvenir - or some food

14:58 CEST   
We've had a few e-mails from fans who are simply horrified at the appearance of David Millar's skin. He's a ghastly white, being slathered in zinc oxide to protect his skin from the sun in an attempt to ease his rash. People are suggesting all sorts of oils and creams he could use...

Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux)
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

15:00 CEST    102km/109km to go
Poor Sandy Casar is riding along in the break with his shorts ripped open and a fist-sized raspberry wound on his buttocks is visible. I wonder if our fans have any herbal remedies for road rash?

15:03 CEST   
Discovery Channel is still patrolling the front of the race, but aren't concerned about the quartet up front at the moment. However, they won't let the move get much more time since Boogerd was only 27'50 down on Contador at the start today. The others are much farther down on GC.

15:05 CEST    105km/106km to go
The spectators have a mammoth on display. The Périgord has been scene of a few discoveries of older bones.

15:06 CEST   
Over in Italy, Quick.Step-Innergetic's Italian champion Giovanni Visconti has taken stage 2a of the Brixa Tour. He surprised the sprinters with a late attack and soloed to victory in his new white, red and green jersey. "Things just couldn’t have gone better, winning a stage wearing this jersey is just amazing, a dream that is coming true. I am extremely happy for myself and my team," Visconti said after the race.

15:06 CEST   
German champ Fabian Wegmann flatted a few moments ago, but he is already back in the field again. He was really hoping to be in the break today, but there are only four lucky ones, pedalling a quarter of an hour ahead of the main bunch.

15:08 CEST    107.5km/103.5km to go
The cameras now pan back to the rear end of the peloton, and who do we see but Thomas Voeckler. He gets the tailgunner's award of the Tour as he has probably spent more time at the back than any other rider. He gives his tired legs a little shake.

The riders up front still have more than 14 minutes on the peloton. The guys in the main bunch are out of the saddle going up a small rise. The leaders up ahead are passing by a field of lazing bovines - the cows look up, chewing their cud, and then lower their heads back down to nap.

15:11 CEST   
Discovery Channel are all lined up at the front wearing bright, neon yellow backnumbers signifying they are at the top of the team standings. They're being directed now by a fan holding two flags - she's doing a bit of semaphore, we think...

15:13 CEST   
The peloton passes La Douze. The few stone houses and the old church is on the rider's left.

15:14 CEST    111.5km/99.5km to go
There still is no decisive chase going on in the peloton, and the break holds 14'20 on the Disco-led field. Alberto Contador seems to have warmed to the yellow jersey today, and gives a smile and wave to the cameras.

Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux)
Photo ©: Gregor Brown
(Click for larger image)

15:16 CEST    113km/98km to go
If Boogerd's group can hold this gap to the finish, the Rabobank man would be inside the top ten on GC tonight. However, they've got a long, long way to go and the sprinters' teams will probably have other ideas of how they want the finish to go down.

15:18 CEST   
Sandy Casar signed autographs before signing in for the race. His look was very concentrated - he must have been already thinking of trying something.

15:23 CEST   
Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Telecom) revealed before the race that his team will try from the start to be in a break. True to their word it was first Jérôme Pineau who gave it a go, but when that break was caught, Laurent Lefèvre took off and he is now part of the break of the day.

15:24 CEST   
The Germans Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) and Markus Burghardt are chatting to each other - likely in German, but probably not revealing any strategies to each other.

15:26 CEST   
With the forest on their right and the open fields on their left, the peloton moves on, with spectators waiting on the few intersections that they pass. The front group goes through a round about, with a big globe on display.

15:30 CEST   
The leaders have built up more than 15 minutes now, and have been able to focus on extending their lead without any climbs or sprint bonuses distracting them for many kilometres. Let's recap the action on all the climbs and the intermediate sprint that went on in the early part of the stage. The last obstacle was the final climb of the day.

Côte de Saint-Cyprien (Category 4) - km 70.5
1. Michael Boogerd 3
2. Sandy Casar 2
3. Laurent Lefèvre 1

Sprint Saint-Cyprien - km 66
1. Axel Merckx
2. Laurent Lefèvre
3. Michael Boogerd

Côte de Saint-Martial-de-Nabirat (Category 4) - 39.5 km
1. Laurent Lefèvre 3
2. Michael Boogerd 2
3. Sandy Casar 1

Côte de Lavercantière (Category 4) - 24 km
1. Laurent Lefèvre 3
2. Michael Boogerd 2
3. Sandy Casar 1

Côte de Salvezou (Category 4) - 15 km
1. Frederick Willems 3
2. Jerome Pineau 2
3. Sandy Casar 1

15:30 CEST   
We are close to Perigueux, the capital of the Dordogne department. Many churches and older structures, such as the "Tour de Vésone, make this a nice destination for tourists.

15:32 CEST   
Lefèvre hasn't managed to move up from 5th place in the mountains classification despite taking those seven points today. He's still seven behind Cadel Evans, but he does get some cold, hard cash for each sprint taken.

15:34 CEST   
The château barrière is next to the railroad tracks in Perigueux. It is more ruins than château, but still, it has a nice look to it. Those sights that the riders pass are really an integral part of the Tour.

15:35 CEST    126km/85km to go
With the break ballooning to 15'37", Boogerd is now threatening the 8th place position of Yaroslav Popovych! But Discovery still has two riders placed higher up in Leipheimer and our yellow jersey Contador - so who will take up the chase?

15:38 CEST   
Will the sprinters teams give Boogerd a consolation prize today and let this break stay clear until the end? The poor guy was mighty grumpy about the situation with Rasmussen and the abandon of Menchov. It's understandable, because he could have had a higher placing in the overall if he hadn't been playing super-domestique for those two.

Michael Boogerd (Rabobank)
Photo ©: Cyclingnews.com
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15:43 CEST    131km/80km to go
Boogerd is coming to the end of a quite successful career - his best ever Tour was when he placed 5th overall in 1998, but he's cracked the top ten once before in 2001 and has won two stages. The gap is still going out - at 16'05 now with Discovery doing all the work.

15:46 CEST   
The peloton is just now hitting Perigueux. They also ride at a rather leisurely pace of 35 to 38 km/h as they go through downtown and enjoy the cathedrals of this old town.

15:48 CEST    134km/77km to go
The peloton is looking mightily sluggish, and the breakaway riders don't even have to breathe too hard to extend their advantage to 16'16. This happens quite frequently in these final stages of the Tour, especially when the minor jersey competitions aren't too tight. Everyone's tired, their morale is a bit low after recent events, and who feels like chasing?

15:49 CEST   
Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) said before the race that after almost three weeks, fatigue has settled in. No kidding. He said that even a good night's sleep is harder to come by, but at least it's the same for everyone. He is already looking forward to Sunday, to the "belle journée."

15:50 CEST   
Boogerd is now threatening the position of T-Mobile's Kim Kirchen, and with another minute or so he'll be overtaking Alejandro Valverde in the standings - if this break holds its advantage. 16'23 now - the peloton is more than 10km behind them!

15:52 CEST   
The break would need a whole lot more time to come close to moving Boogerd ahead of Euskaltel's Haimar Zubeldia or CSC's Carlos Sastre, so now it's up to T-Mobile, Barloworld and Caisse d'Epargne to decide if they want to fight for the top ten or not! The breakaway is still working smoothly together, but their gap has stabilised at around 16'23. It's not going out as quickly as it has been.

Axel Merckx
Photo ©: Cyclingnews.com
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15:54 CEST   
The planned retirement and move to Canada of Axel Merckx may take a detour to south of the Canadian border, as the likeable Belgian apparently has an offer to start as a directeur sportif from Slipstream.

15:54 CEST    139km/72km to go
The peloton is having to negotiate a series of roundabouts, and the constant switches and turns has strung out the bunch into a long, thin line. The gap is still going out a bit - 16'34 now - so the single file line isn't an indication that they've started chasing yet.

15:59 CEST    141km/70km to go
Many of the riders are seen wearing necklaces in the Tour - they've got their jerseys zipped open so the jewelry dangles and bobs with their pedaling. Yesterday's winner Daniele Bennati is deeply religious, and wears a rosary.

16:00 CEST   
The other riders sport a variety of gold chains, silver chains with charms - often things that they consider to be good luck and never leave their necks.

16:03 CEST    144km/67km to go
With 67 km to go and a gap that is approaching 17 minutes at this point, it really doesn't look as if this break is going to come back today. The GC riders are saving their legs for the final showdown in tomorrow's time trial, so they don't want to put any effort into hauling this back. With 66.6km to go the break gets their 17 minutes. Not coming back at all!

16:04 CEST    145km/66km to go
Boogerd is getting a bit of attention from a medic on the motorbike. It appears as if he's been bit by a bug on his belly - he gets some cream put on and then goes back to work in the break.

16:06 CEST   
We pass the Château Levec. The now private residence is dressed in Tour colours. They even have some hay balls out that have features cyclist's schemes. The banner in one of the windows has drawings of the yellow, white and green jersey.

16:08 CEST   
Casar is still sporting that road rash from his run-in with the dog earlier in the stage, but continues to pull just like the rest of the quartet up front. His wound will be drying up now and starting to pull with the skin and get quite uncomfortable. Riders these days like to keep their wounds moist - with the advent of wet-healing methods, road rash heals up much quicker than when it's left to dry and scab over, and it is much less painful.

Current situation

  • Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom), Axel Merckx (T-Mobile), Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) and Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux)
  • Peloton at 17.03

16:11 CEST   
Axel Merckx is the tallest rider in the break today. He's also the second retiree up front - both he and Boogerd are stopping at the end of the year, and both will be keen to top off their careers with a stage win.

16:13 CEST    150km/61km to go
Oh look - a farmer has spelled out 'vive le tour' in rolls of straw in his field. The fans are staying with the Tour this year - there has been quite a lot of support for the riders left in the race. The doping scandals have gotten to the point that the riders are actually getting sympathy instead of jeers.

16:13 CEST   
The fields to the left have been harvested off, but a few hay bales were left in place to greet the riders: "Vive le Tour", the strategically placed hay bales read.

Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC)
Photo ©: AFP
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16:16 CEST   
Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) is all thinking about tomorrow. He hopes that "he can do a third thing." After his two stage wins he is motivated to win the second long time trial, after the first one was a disaster and crashing in the rain. Cancellara revealed that "I will try to hide today and save my energies." It's all for tomorrow, as he is seen stuffing a coke into his pocket. It's supposedly good for recovery.

16:16 CEST   
Merckx has got to be one of the tallest riders in the peloton - he's 1.91m tall according to his T-Mobile team's website - that's 6'3" or so! He's got a bit of a disadvantage in the draft of his shorter breakaway companions, but his position on the bike is quite low and aerodynamic.

16:19 CEST    153km/58km to go
Surely the gap cannot continue to go out, but it is hovering at 17'15 at the moment. Predictor-Lotto is shadowing the Discovery Channel team, but still not lending any assistance to the chase.

Up ahead, Boogerd pulls through, his lucky charm necklace dangling low and bouncing off of his bare chest. He, Casar, Lefèvre and Merckx are still cooperating well.

Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues)
Photo ©: Régis Garnier
(Click for larger image)

16:21 CEST   
Christian Guiberteau, directeur sportif of Bouygues Telecom, admits that yesterday wasn't so good for his team, missing the break. That is why they tried so hard today. From the comfort of his team car, he did say he wasn't too confident about a sprint, as "Laurent isn't the fastest." Hopefully it will work out some other way, then.

16:21 CEST   
Now the Disco boys have a bit of a time out - and the gap goes back out to the leaders as the boys up front take a chance to answer the call of nature. If this continues, Boogerd could well be in 6th overall tonight.

16:26 CEST   
The riders pas the Abbey St Pierre de Brotone. It has a beautiful location, back against the forest, but connected to downtown via a bridge over the canal on the other side. This area also has some caves that are worth visiting. One of the Abbey's residents is waving a white flag.

16:30 CEST    160km/51km to go
17'30 now for the leaders as the Disco boys seem rather unconcerned. They're getting some fresh bottles up front thanks to the domestiques, and now CSC's Christian Vande Velde comes up to have a chat with the Disco boys.

16:34 CEST   
The Tour seems to have risen out of yesterday's funk caused by a rapid succession of doping issues. Riders who seemed grim in Pau are now back to chatting, joking, and laughing. Predictor-Lotto's American Chris Horner has been a great barometer of the mood in the peloton, and summed it up last night saying, "[Cheating] has been around since the beginning of times and I mean not only since cycling times. It's people," Horner said, "not just in sport but everywhere. You just have to deal with it and get through the bad moments.

16:35 CEST    164km/47km to go
The breakaway is working considerably harder than the older gentleman who is watching from behind his fishing pole near a small pond. They zoom past this peaceful scene in a bright flash of magenta, orange, blue and white.

16:37 CEST   
Iñigo Cuesta is actually the CSC rider having a chat up front with Discovery's Spanish riders. He's chatting with the young race leader now, and they've got plenty of breath to chat as the pace is still relaxed.

16:40 CEST   
A 5 metre high straw man is looking at the break from the left hand side of the road, while some spectators have climbed into the front loader of a tractor and are watching the race from the same height as the straw man.

16:41 CEST    167km/44km to go
Merckx continues to power along at the front of the break, but they're all working well together, still. Merckx's bike says Giant, and indeed it is - not just the brand but the size.

The four will most likely continue to work together for the next 20 kilometres or so, but the fireworks should start inside the final 20km as Boogerd, Lefèvre and Merckx will want to get rid of Casar who is the best sprinter in the move.

16:45 CEST   
Le château de Mareuil is right on the race route. It looks like the last tenants moved out a while ago. No, wait, there is a car parked. Well, time to fix that stone wall in the back yard. Otherwise the place seems in decent condition and the gardener is a doing a good job.

16:46 CEST    171km/40km to go
Casar has already demonstrated his sprinting abilities from a break when he took second in Marseille on stage ten. He made up quite a bit of ground, but started from too far back and couldn't overtake Vasseur who had launched a powerful attack inside the final kilometre.

16:47 CEST   
Today's finish, however, is uphill in the final 500m, and this is the type of finish that Michael Boogerd will be salivating over. He loves the uphill sprint, as it reminds him of his home town event, the Amstel Gold Race.

16:48 CEST   
Cancellara also talked about the chances in regards to the overall. He thought it was going to be tough for Cadel Evans, even though he has done a great time trial in Albi. His take is that Cadel has more pressure as not too many people know Contador yet. Even though he has yellow, he is young and "not too many look at him." Cancellara was expecting a beautiful battle for the overall, where "Contador will have to do the ride of his life," said the Swiss time trial specialist with a smile.

16:49 CEST   
Or maybe Boogerd doesn't want to be reminded of the Amstel Gold race, since he's had a string of second places there. But he did succeed once - in 1999 when he beat one Lance Armstrong to the line.

16:51 CEST   
Speaking of Armstrong, Merckx first turned pro and was on the Motorola team with the Texan back in 1993. He moved over to Telekom the next year in 1994, which was the year that Michael Boogerd turned pro with Rabobank. Boogerd has stayed loyal to the Dutch team for his entire career.

16:55 CEST    176km/35km to go
The peloton has managed to pull back a few seconds thanks to the work of Egoi Martinez, Vladimir Gusev and Benjamin Noval. It seems that Hincapie and Popovych are exempt from chasing - and are saving their energy for the TT tomorrow.

16:57 CEST    178km/33km to go
The lead four are still working together, but now Boogerd draws alongside and sizes up his competition. Casar has been doing slightly more work than the other three - 29% of the pulls, while the two soon to be retirees have been only doing 23%.

16:59 CEST    179km/32km to go
Casar is now looking back for the race doctor - his ripped up shorts showing why he needs help. He crashed early on, and is now getting some ointment on his right elbow which is swollen and covered in cuts.

17:02 CEST    180km/31km to go
The leaders will get one minor chance for glory at the final intermediate sprint with 19km to go, then it will be a very fast run-in to Angoulême before the leaders hit the tough uphill finish.

17:06 CEST   
The leader's gap is starting to come down now thanks to the help of the teams who are being threatened by the presence of Michael Boogerd in this breakaway. It's down to 15'24 already.

17:08 CEST    184km/27km to go
Euskaltel is starting to chase in order to protect the position of Mikel Astarloza - the break wasn't close to threatening Zubeldia at all, so they must feel that Astarloza can hold that top ten position.

17:10 CEST   
Today's stage hasn't been much more than a recovery ride for the peloton once that break went clear, though the early kilometres were quite quick before the four were given a long leash. But the chase is on for sure now, and the gap is down to 14'40 thanks to Euskaltel-Euskadi's efforts.

17:11 CEST   
The intermediate sprints not only pay points for the green jersey competition and bonus seconds for the overall classification, but also good cold hard cash. First across the line will get 800 euro (that's 1097.86 USD or 1245.08 Australian dollars). The second guy is 450 euro richer and the third will get 300. One of the guys in the break will get about 0 euro for 4th place, which is 0 dollars both in Australia and the US. But the riders usually don't keep the money anyway. Everything goes in one pot, then it gets divided evenly by the team. If you think that is unfair to somebody like Contador - well, the way for the top guys to make money is in the post race crits. Those start on Monday - so no break for some of the racers after the Tour!

17:11 CEST    186km/25km to go
The leaders are under the 25km to go banner, and heading up a small incline - they're looking quite a bit slower than the peloton which is absolutely flying along now and eating into the gap like a voracious wild animal.

17:13 CEST   
Boogerd flats - how untimely, a little more than 5km before the sprint. But the change is quick and he is on his way.

17:13 CEST    187.4km/23.6km to go
The front group waits for him and he quickly joins them again, right after the 5km banner, that shows the distance to the sprint.

17:14 CEST    188km/23km to go
Boogerd got back to the group very quickly, and the four are back to working together. Still no attacks, but they're all watching each other quite closely now.

17:16 CEST    189km/22km to go
There's a little bump for the breakaway here, just a few kilometres before the last intermediate sprint, and Boogerd is showing the effort of the grade.

17:18 CEST   
Discovery and Predictor-Lotto have taken a back seat to the entirety of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team. The boys in orange have whittled the gap down to 12'40 now, but shouldn't threaten to catch our four men before the finish.

17:19 CEST    191km/20km to go
20 km to go for our four leaders, and now Boogerd has been shut out of the top ten by the Basque team's efforts. The sprint is coming up, but they're not having anything to do with it. Lefèvre pulls through, followed by Merckx, Casar and then Boogerd.

17:20 CEST    192km/19km to go
Casar just happens to be on the front as the break passes the line, but it wasn't a sprint at all.

17:21 CEST    193km/18km to go
Casar, Merckx and Boogerd get the points and cash bonuses in that last sprint - with poor Lefèvre getting shut out of the money. But he's still in with a good chance at a bigger bonus for a top stage finish.

17:22 CEST   
The cash for sprints equals the ones for the HC climbs. For 1st category, it is 650, 400 and 150 euro, for 2nd it's 500 and 250 for the top 2 and the third and fourth category climb only pay for the first guy over the top. 300 (cat3) and 200 euro. So the sprinters get as much as the top guys over the HC climb. Sprinters work just as hard as the mountain goats!

17:25 CEST    195km/16km to go
Of the four in the break, Merckx could very well be the freshest rider. Casar crashed hard early on, Lefèvre has been killing himself for KOM points during most of this Tour, Boogerd has had to do a hard week of work for the now absent Rasmussen... so we could see the tall, blond T-Mobile man raising his arms at today's finish.

17:26 CEST    196km/15km to go
Merckx's last win was in 2005 when he won a stage of the Dauphine. But for now, all four riders are continuing to work together without any games.

17:28 CEST    197km/14km to go
The gap is now down to just over 11 minutes - so our breakaway is certainly safe from being caught now.

Current situation

  • Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom), Axel Merckx (T-Mobile), Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) and Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux)
  • Peloton at 10.55

17:30 CEST    198.5km/12.5km to go
Barloworld is sitting behind the teams of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Discovery and Predictor. They'll be hoping to get some points for Hunter today, who is 22 points behind Boonen in the points classification. The peloton passes the 20km to go banner just under 11 minutes behind the leaders.

17:32 CEST    201km/10km to go
All of the riders in the break are out of the saddle on this little rise. Then they go down a bit, but the road goes up again. Constant change.

17:32 CEST   
Boogerd sets the first attack, just a few hundred metres after they pass the 10km to go sign!

17:33 CEST    201km/10km to go
The leaders will face an elevation gain of a whole 24 metres in the final kilometre of the race today - this information brought to you by a reader, Burkni Helgason.

17:33 CEST   
Lefèvre brings him back. Boogerd doesn't want to sprint against the others.

17:34 CEST    203km/8km to go
Boogerd was quickly marked, and the four settle down again. Lefèvre is on the front looking around.

17:35 CEST   
Although Casar may likely not do too well in the sprint. He looks like he's suffering from his injuries when he had the encounter with the dog earlier.

17:35 CEST   
The leaders pass through a gigantic roundabout, and Boogerd is on the front - but then he pulls off to keep an eye on things from the back.

17:36 CEST   
This part of the course is predominantly downhill now, and Merckx lends his weight to the pacemaking - finding it easier with gravity's assistance.

17:36 CEST    204km/7km to go
The peloton is a good 8km behind and there is no chance of them threatening our leaders now. It's poker time up front - who will play the first card?

17:37 CEST    205km/6km to go
Boogerd is keeping a close eye on everyone, while Merckx has a relaxed cadence and is looking quite confident.

17:37 CEST   
Lefèvre attacks! The Frenchman gets a gap and Boogerd is forced to chase!

17:38 CEST   
Merckx patiently waits, and pulls off to the left... he won't close the last few metres.

17:39 CEST    206km/5km to go
Boogerd has to close the gap! He nails back the final few metres and Merckx is still in there and Casar on the back.

17:39 CEST    206.5km/4.5km to go
Now we all look around at each other - who is next? Casar on the front looking back, and he takes the hard right then pulls off.

17:39 CEST   
Casar dangles off the back, looking like he's getting ready to try and surprise them.

17:40 CEST    207km/4km to go
It's very twitchy up front - Merckx sits up to go back to watch Boogerd.

17:40 CEST   
The roads are going up and down now, and Merckx is forced back to the front and now Boogerd goes!

17:41 CEST    207.5km/3.5km to go
Lefèvre was right on Boogerd, and quickly closes the gap down and they all sit up again. Casar is lurking...

17:41 CEST   
Now Merckx goes! Lefèvre is on it, but doesn't put a huge effort as Axel sits up.

17:41 CEST   
Now Casar goes and he gets a big gap! He took off on one side of a divider and the others just watch.

17:42 CEST   
Casar has a big gap and now Boogerd is forced to chase - he's not closing it down quickly though

17:42 CEST   
Lefèvre takes Merckx off the wheel and now Boogerd goes again to try to get to Casar.

17:42 CEST   
Casar is motoring and Boogerd can't get rid of the other two.

17:43 CEST    209.3km/1.7km to go
It's a desperate situation for the other three now with Casar having about 5 seconds only...

17:43 CEST    210km/1km to go
Merckx is rocking and rolling now, hoping Lefèvre closes the gap to Boogerd who has gotten close to Casar!

17:43 CEST   
They're all together now

17:44 CEST   
Merckx is looming large at the back of our four, and goes around Lefèvre to get on Boogerd's wheel.

17:44 CEST   
Casar continues setting pace, and Boogerd sets a gap to his wheel.

17:44 CEST   
Casar keeps powering and opens up a gap.

17:44 CEST   
It's uphill and Merckx tries to get around, but he can't do it!

17:45 CEST   
Sandy Casar takes the stage ahead of Merckx and Lefèvre!
Boogerd rolls in defeated!

17:46 CEST   
The game playing was the nail in the coffin of the plans of Boogerd, and Casar just persisted at the front, kept powering away on the uphill rise and Merckx just could NOT get ahead of the FdJ rider.

17:47 CEST   
The peloton still has to come in, and is now led by Lampre and Quick.Step... but Casar is already celebrating his fabulous win. He was second twice in this Tour, and now he's on the stage winner's podium!

17:48 CEST   
Boonen has his entire team on the front now, and is a green dot at the bottom of the blue exclamation point. Barloworld is sitting right behind with Hunter.

17:49 CEST   
It will be a few minutes before the peloton arrives, and Casar will have time to get cleaned up and receive his bouquet and podium girl kisses before we see the sprint for 5th.

17:50 CEST   
Casar said it was a long stage. He got motivated by others to continue after the crash. In the end he saw a gap and gave it his all. Well done!

17:51 CEST   
The Quick.Step led peloton is still leading six minutes behind the finishers now with a two kilometres to go.

17:51 CEST   
Casar looked pretty beat, no wonder. The peloton is still lead by Quick.Step Innergetic.

17:52 CEST   
They've got a bit of a shuffle from that roundabout, but now Boonen is 5th wheel with Hunter coming up as the last Barloworld rider in the front.

17:52 CEST   
Boonen, Zabel, Hunter and Bennati are queued up behind the blue train.

17:52 CEST   
Boonen still has three guys riding for him, less than 2km to go.

17:53 CEST   
Zabel has Boonen's wheel, and Steegmans is the last man for Boonen. He takes over and Dean is up there now.

17:53 CEST   
Chavanel is coming up on the right but Boonen is powering away.

17:53 CEST   
Boonen gets it ahead of Hunter - and Boonen has just about wrapped up that green jersey.

17:55 CEST   
Cadel Evans was right up front keeping safe for the time trial show-down with Contador and Leipheimer tomorrow. It's going to be a big day for the GC men tomorrow and it will certainly one of the most exciting time trials since Armstrong was just seconds clear on the GC back in 2003...

17:56 CEST   
Let's hope the weather holds out and we can have a true test of these men's abilities on Saturday, but for now we'll say goodbye and thanks for reading as always!

17:59 CEST   
Before we say goodbye for good, Evans was mighty attentive and there was a small gap in the field on the run-in. He took 14th and three seconds on Contador's group.

Provisional results

1 Sandy Casar (Fra) Française Des Jeux
2 Axel Merckx (Bel) T-Mobile                      0.01
3 Laurent Lefèvre (Fra) Bouygues Telecom
4 Michael Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank
5 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep-Innergetic           8.34       
6 Robert Hunter (RSA) Barloworld
7 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
8 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis
9 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) T-Mobile
10 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole

General classification

1 Alberto Contador (Spa) Discovery Channel
2 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto                    1.50

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