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Head to head

For the third year running, Australians are playing a leading role in the green points jersey contest for the Tour's most consistent daily finisher. This year it's the turn of FdJeux.com's Baden Cooke to wear and defend green, and as he tells Gabriella Ekström, he fears one of his countrymen most, but he has a secret weapon.

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Having been so close last year, the obvious goal for Baden Cooke at the start of the Tour was to get the stage win he missed out on last year. There's no need to make excuses for not winning a stage in your first Tour, but Cooke really wanted to win on Champs Elysées last year. After losing out to compatriot Robbie McEwen that day, he could look forward to a whole year of 'what ifs' while preparing for the Centenary Tour. As it turned out, he didn't have to wait until Paris, because already at the second stage to Sedan he was the first rider over the line, and second on the G.C. With the first week of the Tour designed for sprinters, the bunch sprints remained his objective until an accident saw McEwen lose the green jersey to Alessandro Petacchi on stage six in Lyon. Cooke was just behind Petacchi in that competition, and the Italian sprinter had already announced that he was not feeling good.

"I knew he was going to stop," Cooke told Cyclingnews, "He was suffering badly on the small climbs in the first week, and I knew he was not up for the Alps. I didn't expect him to quit quite that soon though."

Looking confident in green
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With Alessandro Petacchi on his way home to Marina di Massa, Cooke started the stage to Alpe d'Huez with the green jersey, and from that moment his focus had changed.

"Once I got the jersey, I started to target it a hundred percent. Another stage win would be nice, but it's not important enough to risk losing the jersey for. It all comes down to how I feel, and what effort it would take for the team to bring the peloton together for a bunch sprint. I'd rather be sprinting for tenth if it means I'll keep the jersey at the end of the day."

So far, it has been a close fight with McEwen over the points that are handed out during each stage. After eleven stages, only eight points separate the two sprinters and it has literally been hard to separate them on some occasions.

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"Yes, I know," Cooke says. "On the stage to Marseille I'm pretty sure that I won the first sprint, but they gave it to McEwen. Unfortunately, there was no camera there to take a proper finish shot of the sprint, but everyone who saw it on TV said that I won it. After the sprint, I went straight to the car and told them that I had actually won it, and I complained again after the stage. I'm quite surprised that Marc Madiot decided not to take my complaint further. I wouldn't make such a big deal of it if I wasn't sure I actually won it."

Despite being disappointed not being awarded that sprint, Cooke made no errors taking the sprint for tenth in Marseille. With so little separating the two Australian sprinters, every little point counts, and the Benalla bullet looked rather exhausted as he turned to Brad McGee and David Millar after the stage to ask if he got it. On today's post-rest-day stage to Toulouse, FdJeux.com cunningly placed Carlos Da Cruz in the break with Stuart O'Grady, and Da Cruz made sure that he scored the highest number of points in both sprints. Taking two points both in Carcassonne and in Caraman, O'Grady still made some progress up the classification, and when he finished sixth in the sprint behind Flecha, he had passed his team mate Thor Hushovd in the sprinters' classification. Behind that group, Cooke once again fought it out with McEwen, and in a very tight finish, McEwen got the better out of it and finished ninth.

After the Alps, Erik Zabel and Stuart O'Grady have both passed Hushovd, and are now holding third and fourth place behind Cooke and McEwen.

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"Since McEwen has been struggling on the climbs, I am more worried about Zabel and O'Grady in the mountains, because they have been doing some good climbing. McEwen could be in danger of being eliminated once we get to the Pyrenees. Thor Hushovd has also been climbing well, but I don't think he's fast enough to pick up on the points. Zabel and O'Grady could be dangerous if it came down to a bonus sprint after a climb, but so far I've been the better sprinter. I did a lot of climbing training before the Tour, and I spent a few weeks at altitude, in Tignes. I also rode Tour de Suisse, so I can easily say that I've done more climbing than sprinting coming up to the Tour. If I had done more sprinting, I surely would have been better in the sprints, but I figure I'll be better in the Pyrenees this way."

During this Tour, there have been complaints about the lack of organisation in the sprints. Obviously, there's no zebra train lining up for Mario Cipollini, and with Petacchi out of the race there's one fewer team looking after the sprints. However, Cooke doesn't think it's an issue.

"I don't think there's been such a big disorganisation as some people say. We have done a good job putting our guys up front, and we did that even before Petacchi left. Brad McGee's kind of my secret weapon. He has the knowledge of how to put me in a perfect position for the sprints, and he is riding so strongly at the moment. I think he rides with the power of three riders at least. The whole team is very motivated and I've seen that the Lotto guys have been getting more and more tired. We are getting better and better at it, and we will continue to take that responsibility."

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