Cadel Evans (BMC) won Tuesday’s stage 4 of the 2011 Tour de France, a 172.5-kilometer race from Lorient to Mûr-de-Bretagne with a tough uphill finish.
Race leader Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) marked the climbers on the finale to retain his overall lead another day — by just one second ahead of Evans.
“I am very, very happy to keep (the jersey),” said Hushovd. “It was very hard up the final climb. I was on my limit to stay with those guys. The maillot jaune gave me extra motivation to dig even deeper.”
Evans showed impressive form to mark a late attack by Contador and hold a select group off on the long uphill sprint.
“This is the first time that I won a road stage at the Tour de France,” the Australian said. “I am very content. I am still in second place, but the impressions are good right now. We had good preparation for the Tour this year and the team is very motivated to help me, so everything is going very good right now.”
The win was Evans’ first road stage win at the Tour. He was awarded the win of the 2007 stage 13 time trial after Alexander Vinoukourov tested positive and his win was negated.
An interesting first-week stage
The stage 4 route was part of race organizers’ efforts the last two years to climb out of a rut of predictable first-week field sprints. The route included two categorized climbs, the Category 4 Côte de Laz at 79km and, much more importantly, the Cat. 3 Mûr-de-Bretagne at the finish. The route was run on narrow, twisting road with a seemingly endless series of uncategorized risers.
A cool wet start
It was just 16 degrees C (61 Farenheit) and raining when the field rolled out of Lorient. At the 9km mark, a group of five came together off the front. The best placed Movistar’s Imanol Erviti, who after three stages of this Tour found himself at 111th at 2:58. The others: Gorka Izagirre Insausti (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Jérémy Roy, (Fdj) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM).
By the 25k mark, the break had more than a four-minute gap making Erviti, a two-time Vuelta a Espana stage winner, the Tour leader on the road.
BMC was doing the bulk of the work at the front of the field, perhaps signaling that Evans was looking to position himself for a run at a stage win — and the yellow jersey. Stage favorite Philippe Gilbert’s Omega Pharma squad also chipped in to the work, and the break’s advantage was brought back to 2:15 at the 100 kilometer mark.
The KOM ‘sprint’
The breakaway still had a decent gap over the top of the day’s first categorized climb and Hoogerland snagged the one KOM point on offer there, creating a three-way tie on the KOM competition, with Gilbert, Hoogerland and Mickael Delage (FdJ) each with one point. The tie would be broken with the points on offer at the finish line, which would also serve as a category 3 KOM line.
The intermediate sprint
Hoogerlang also grabbed the first-place points at the day’s one intermediate sprint, which came 80km from the finish. Behind the break, Monday’s stage winner, Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, took the field sprint for the sixth-place points. Green jersey holder Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) was just behind Farrar in seventh, while HTC’s Mark Cavendish was ninth.
Omega did the bulk of the chasing after the sprint, but the breakaway took advantage of the twisty roads and a tailwind to maintain a gap of roughly two minutes into the final 30km.
As the peloton hit the climbs in the final 20km, the gap started to come down, to just under a minute with 10k to go. In the peloton, the non-climbers were suffering, dangling off the back.
The break was finally caught with 3km to go, just as the race hit the steep opening ramps of the finish climb.
BMC’s Hincapie took a monster pull into the climb while Evans tucked in near the front.
The front bunch stayed intact with all the favorites into the final 2k until Contador opened it up with an attack at 1.3km to go.
The Tour champion’s move was marked by a select group of favorites, including Hushovd, Gilbert, Evans and Alexander Vinokourov. Evans led out the slow motion uphill sprint and held off a late bike throw by Contador to take the win.
The pace on the final climb was not enough to shake a determined Hushovd, however. The big Norwegian crossed the line with the same time as Evans to retain the yellow jersey another day.
Frank Schleck finished at the same time as Evans, Contador and Hushovd. But a few other GC favorites lost a handful of seconds in the finale. Ivan Basso was 6 seconds back, as was Bradley Wiggins. Chris Horner, Robert Gesink, Levi Leipheimer and Andy Schleck were all at 8 seconds.
“The time (gap) today is just a few seconds,” Evans said. “I don’t think that these small differences will mean much when we get to Paris. It’s a good indication of the first week, but we have 3,000 kilometers to get to the finish line.”
Wednesday’s stage 5 is 165km from Carhaix to Cap de Fréhel, across the windy coast of Brittany. The likely cross winds could give some teams an opportunity to split the field apart and a fairly technical finale could upset some sprinter’s trains and create an unpredictable finish.