Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Robbie McEwen of Australia wins 9th stage despite pain


Even with one bad leg, Robbie McEwen is still the fastest gun at the Tour de France.

Head down, the Australian put on an explosive burst of speed to win the ninth stage Tuesday, racing along the barriers to throw his wheel over the line just a whisker ahead of Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd.

McEwen is the first rider to win two stages at this Tour. But when he set out Tuesday, he wasn't even sure he'd make it to the finish. Banged up in a mass crash on Friday, he rode with a sore back and knee and said he started the stage thinking, "I just hope I survive."

"It's a beautiful victory," said the 32-year-old. "I gave all of my energy to that sprint."

Spain's Inigo Landaluze and Italian rider Filippo Simeoni suffered the bitter disappointment of seeing victory snatched from their grasp. They pedaled bravely way out in front of the main pack of riders for much of the race, but were gradually reeled in and overtaken by McEwen, Hushovd and other sprinters in the massed dash for the line.

The undulating, hilly 160.5km ride, the shortest this year except for time trial courses, started in Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat in central France, the hometown of retired Tour great Raymond Poulidor. He is loved by fans even though he never won the showcase race -- finishing either second or third on the podium a record eight times between 1962 and 1976.

Defending five-time champion Lance Armstrong, who is aiming for a record sixth straight crown, finished comfortably in the main pack, in 44th place. Jan Ullrich, his main rival, was 25th. Both finished in the same time as McEwen's 3 hours, 32 minutes and 55 seconds.

"We just sat on the wheel, took it easy. We didn't have to take any responsibility," said Armstrong. The stage "was fine, didn't really surprise me at all."

Frenchman Thomas Voeckler retained the overall lead, meaning he will wear the leader's yellow jersey on Bastille Day, the national holiday on Wednesday. He still leads sixth-placed Armstrong by 9 minutes, 35 seconds. Ullrich trails the Texan by 55 seconds.

McEwen said his knee was so painful he had to stop six times during a training ride on Monday, a rest day. But he has bags of determination and rated his condition overall as "still very good."

"I don't want to sound like I'm a one-legged man," he said. "After today, I feel like I've been -- at least in the first half of the Tour -- the best sprinter."

McEwen also won a sprint finish in stage two to Namur in Belgium. The Australian, who won the green jersey as best sprinter at the 2002 race, now has five stage victories in seven Tours. He is the current holder of the green jersey -- and hopes to win it at the finish in Paris on July 25.

Hushovd, the Norwegian who won a sprint finish in Sunday's stage, zoomed up the left of the final straight, while McEwen stayed right, skimming the barriers. They were neck-to-neck at the line, with McEwen just ahead.

The two breakaway riders, Landaluze and Simeoni, surged ahead of the pack 38km from the start, built up a lead of around 10 minutes, and looked to be headed for a notable win. Such escapes are a hallowed part of Tour riding -- with riders who attempt them admired for their grit in racing solo ahead of the rest.

But the pack began to lay chase with about 68km to go, and gradually clawed back the gap. As they rounded the last corner to the finish, Landaluze and Simeoni were within sight of their chasers. Their tired legs couldn't get them over the line ahead of the faster sprinters.

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