Photo copyright A.S.O. 2003
Stage 1, Auxerre – Paray-le-Monial, 191km
This should be the sprinters’ best opportunity with just two Category 3 climbs to hinder them. Expect Fassa Bortolo and Lotto-Domo to bring in any escapees for a big showdown at the finish between in-form Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen. Other Aussies Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke could sneak a victory.
With the Tour selectors watching and the TV cameras rolling, it was no surprise that all the breaks of the day were by French men. Equally with O’Grady and Alessandro Petacchi in striking distance of the leaders jersey the two intermediate sprints with time bonuses (3. 2. 1 seconds) became highly significant.
Petacchi was clearly the fastest man of the day although at the first intermediate sprint at Clamecy both he and O’Grady lost out to Yuriy Krivtsov (Jean Delatour). Shortly after Stéphane Augé (Credit Agricole) went off on a solo adventure of nearly 100 kilometres.
Stéphane Augé’s adventure was not without its rewards, for he took both mountain sprints and took the KOM jersey at the end of the day. However riding solo into a headwind clearly took its toll and when the peloton finally reeled him in after 150 kilometres of racing he went straight out the back. Ironically, Stéphane Augé found himself riding solo again and eventually finished nearly 19 minutes down on the peloton having ridden solo from the 49th kilometre.
Experienced Eddy Seigneur (Jean Delatour) watched the peloton pull back a couple of speculative attacks from Benoit Salmon (Phonak - another team with an eye on a wild card placing) and Ludovic Martin (Jean Delatour) before he launched his own bid for solo glory with 38 kilometres to go. The French Time trial champion got a working gap and took the 3 seconds bonus at the intermediate sprint in Gueugnon. Once again Pettachi proved quickest of the bunch, leaving hard working O’Grady to take third spot and another vital second.
The CreditAgricole then drove the peloton along and Eddy Seigneur was brought back into the bunch with 20 kilometres to go. Richard Virenque, never one to miss the chance of TV exposure, then led an attack and was quickly joined by Sebastien Joly (Jean Delatour) and Cédric Vasseur (Cofidis).
Had the three men worked together they may well have kept clear, but with 4 kilometres to go and the peloton not looking too organised behind, Joly went for solo glory.
As the Flamme Rouge loomed the Fassa Bortolo boys picked up the pace and Joly’s 8 second advantage disappeared in metres. When the sprinters emerged from the bunch Petacchi was once again the strongest with McEwen and O’Grady following behind.
O’Grady had done enough, though, to take the leader's jersey, which proves hard work and calculation do pay dividends in bike racing.
It is Petacchi’s third victory of the season, having also won the Trofeo Luis Puig and the fifth stage of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana - he will probably not find the rest of the Paris Nice to his liking but will now be dreaming of Milan San Remo.
Stefano Zanatta (DS Fassa)
”We were working for Petacchi today because the stage did not have major difficulties and it was always likely to finish in a sprint. In the last three kilometres the team worked in perfect coordination; Loda, then Cancellara, then Velo and finally Trenti set up Petacchi perfectly for the sprint.”
“It was very difficult towards the end because so many teams were fighting for front positions... Fortunately my team mates have been extraordinary.”
Photo copyright Fassa Bortolo 2003