Norwegian Thor Hushovd finally ended his frustrating wait for victory on this year’s Tour de France by winning a treacherous, rain-hit sixth stage from Gerona to Barcelona on Thursday.
Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara retained the race leader’s yellow jersey with a 0.22 second lead on Lance Armstrong of the US after the 181.5km stage ahead of the first day of climbing in the Pyrenees.
Despite attempts by Armstrong’s Astana team to distance their yellow jersey rivals further with accelerations of pace on the climbs, the biggest star of the day was Hushovd.
The big Cervelo rider, handing his new team their first victory on the Tour, had to eat humble pie in the opening days of the race as British sprint rival Mark Cavendish coasted to consecutive victories on stage 2 and stage 3.
As the more agile sprinters climbed to their battle on the uphill finish line, Cavendish had to settle for 16th place.
It was no surprise that Hushovd pumped his arms in the air, shouting defiantly moments after he had beat Spaniard Oscar Freire to victory.
“It’s been a really stressful week, with crashes and the rain, and just the race itself ... I’m just so happy,” Hushovd said after winning his first stage this year to take his career tally to seven. “It’s always good to win on the Tour, but after everything that’s happened, this has to be one of my best.”
“I don’t mind the uphill finish,” he said. “I got to the front and I still had a bit left in the legs. I saw Oscar Freire go, but I managed to get past him and win.”
In a dramatic finale, Scotland’s David Millar saw his ambitious attack come to an agonizing end just 2km from the finish line as the pace of the sprinters’ teams ruined his day at the front among a three-man breakaway.
As a 40-strong group raced past the Scot on the way toward the Olympic Stadium at Montjuic, it was every man for himself as the uphill finish line approached.
Freire pulled slightly forward of the rest in the closing 150m, but Hushovd drove more powerfully up the Spaniard’s right hand side to beat him by a bike length.
Cavendish retained the sprinters’ green jersey by just one point over Hushovd, the 2005 winner of the points competition’s prize, who denied it would be an easy task to take over from Cavendish in the mountains.
“It would be nice to, but he climbs pretty well too, Cavendish,” Hushovd said.
As the race heads upwards, it is the race for the yellow jersey that will take center stage.
On the first day in the Pyrenees, Cancellara is almost guaranteed to lose the lead, which could go to second placed Armstrong or to teammate Alberto Contador.
However, the Swiss, who also wore the yellow jersey for a week in 2006 and has since won a number of smaller stage races, said he might be ready to give it a try.
“There’s far better climbers here than were at the Tour of Switzerland,” said Cancellara, who won in Switzerland after managing to stay with most of the leaders on the race’s climbs. “I want to defend it, but I just don’t know how far I can go. If it’s over for me tomorrow [Friday], it doesn’t matter. It’s been a great week and I’ve been proud to wear the jersey, but I’m ready to try and defend the jersey.”