Stage 1 Saturday 31 March : Asfeld-Charleville-Mézières (179 km)
Valverde joined the 153 strong peloton at the start this morning hoping to do well in this race, "I am very motivated to do well in this race , I am in good form and I like the look of the course. I am about where I want to be in order to start the April classics at 100%, these are my first big objectives of the season.” Said the Spaniard. Meanwhile Alexandre Vinokourev was more cautious about his ambitions telling Equipe that he was here to test himself in the Time trial.
So on a mild cloudy day the race rolled out of the small village of Asfeld to cover 179 kilometres to Charleville-Mézières. After a flurry of attacks 5 men eventually broke clear, they were Benat Albizuri (Euskaltel-Euskadi) Tiziano Dall'Antonia (Panaria-Navigare) Romain Feillu (Agritubel), Gianpaolo Cheula (Barloworld) and Maurizio Bellin (Team LPR)
These five men took advantage of an indecisive peloton and by the 40th kilometre of racing had a very nice gap of around 3 minutes and in the first hour they had covered 44.5 kilometres. The escapees made an interesting group, Maurizio Bellin won the 34th Freccia dei Vini in 2005, while Gianpaolo Cheula won last years Peace race in the Czech Republic, the third Italian in the break of 5, Tiziano Dall'Antonia is also a good rider against the clock being the U23 TT Champion of Italy in 2005.
Stage 1 – courtesy ASO
With the 5 escapees lead rising to 9 minutes at the 50 kilometre mark the big boys decided enough was enough and Team CSC and Caisse D’Epargne moved to the front of the peloton to establish some sort of order. Under these two teams guidance the lead started to fall. .
By the halfway point of the race, with Astana now also sharing the work at the front, the gap had fallen to 6 minutes.
Over the first difficulty of the day the Côte de Stonne, .Dall’Antonia lead Chuela and Albizuri, while Bellin was dropped but managed to come back on the descent, the peloton continued to close the gap which fell to under 5 minutes with 50 kilometres to go.
Dall’Antonia won the second intermediate sprint ahead of Bellin and Albizuri but the gap was falling quickly now and when Feillu took the final sprint bonus of the day with 28 kilometres to go the peloton was only just over a minute behind.
As the race drew to its conclusion the rain started falling, the five escapees were finally caught with 15 wet kilometres to go and Australian Ben Johnson of the Slipstream Team launched a classic counter attack.
Johnson pressed on and had an 8 second gap over the top of the last climb with 13 kilometres to go, behind him former race winner Bobby Julich lead the chasing peloton.
The heavy rain saw several crashes and the peloton began to thin under the pressure of the charge to the line. With 4 kilometres to go Johnson was finally caught, and it was none other than Cunego who attacked on the counter, while behind him more crashes disrupted the peloton.
With 2 kilometres to go Cunego still had a slender slender lead, and he held off the peloton for the next kilometre, under the Flamme Rouge he had just 10 seconds.
God does not always favour the brave however, Cunego was reeled in with the finish line in sight and German fast man Olaf Pollack took the stage and an excellent result for the Wiesenhof-Felt team.
The former T Mobile rider who won two stages of the Tour of California last year and the points jersey in that race, Pollack proved too fast for Angelo Furlan, who continues to look good since his early season victory in the Etoile de Bessèges.
The victory means that Pollack also is the Overall race leader.
1. Olaf Pollack (All - WIE)
2. Angelo Furlan (Ita - C.A), m.t.
3. Mikel Gaztanaga (Esp - AGR), m.t.
4. Peter Wrolich (Aut - GST), m.t.
5. Sébastien Chavanel (Fra - FDJ), m.t.