|76th Critérium International|
Stage 1: Rethel-Charlevilles Mézières (190.5km)
With the spring sun peeking shyly from the cloud cover in the Ardennes, the riders set off for Stage 1 of the 76th Critérium International, a 190km flat jaunt from Rethel to Charleville Mézières, and one that had 'Bunch Sprint' written all over it.
Nonetheless, this didn't deter RAGT Semences-MG Rover, having been almost totally anonymous in Paris-Nice. After an acceleration from French time-trial champion Eddy Seigneur, his teammate Guillame Auger attacked with just 25km gone. He crossed the intermediate sprint at Vouziers (5km later) with over forty seconds advantage to the peloton, led in by Jens Voigt (Team CSC), who is likely to be gunning for overall victory.
Recently-turned-28 year old Auger pressed on, and by the Cote des Grandes Armoises after 60km, he already had gained 18 minutes advantage on young chasers Eric Baumann (T-Mobile) and Patrik Sinkewitz (Quick Step-Davitamon), who were caught soon after. His lead peaked at 19'30", before it began to be whittled away as Crédit Agricole and fdjeux.com began to chase - not a very nice thing for two teams from the same country to be chasing another.
For the sprint after 113km at Vendresse, Auger led through with a healthy lead of 13'25", ahead of Voigt again - showing his intentions for tomorrow - and Alexandre Usov (Phonak Hearing Systems). With 44km to go, Joseba Beloki - riding his first race for Brioches la Boulangere after a spell of tendonitis - crashed, and although he was fortunately unscathed, he quickly lost 3 minutes. In the end, he finished last, nursed home by teammate Laurent Lefevre. Soon after that, Lance Armstrong and Alexandre Vinokourov duelled for time bonuses in the intermediate sprint (another sign of things to come?), and it was the Kazakh who came out on top.
Before the final climb of the Cote de Barbe-en-Croc, with Auger only ahead by a minute, Dumoulin and Liberty Segurous domestique Rafael Diaz Justo attacked and bridged the gap. Then 23 year old Dumoulin charged again, and led over the climb ahead of Diaz, though their efforts proved fruitless with the bunch cresting the climb only 7 seconds behind. With the sprinters' teams winding it up on the front of the pack, they were soon caught.
In the anticipated bunch sprint, Irish champion Mark Scanlon expertly led out Jean-Patrick Nazon - maillot jaune wearer and Champs Elysees stage winner in the centennary Tour de France last summer - who sped to victory, beating two unlucky Gerolsteiner "Water Boys" Marcus Zberg and Peter Wrolich into second and third.
Nazon also won the first (almost identical to this) stage of the 2002 Critérium International in a bunch sprint, in Francaise des Jeux colours. In fact, he's made it three Nazon triumphs in a row in this stage - his brother Damien won in 2003! It's the 27 year old's first win of the season too, having finished in the top three twice in Tour of Qatar stages, eventually leading to fourth overall.
Tomorrow will, like in previous years, be the decisive day overall. The morning stage is a hill-punctured (seven in total) 98.5km uphill-fest to Monthermé, finishing on a 5% climb - it looks more like a Mafia lie-detector readout than race parcours! In the afternoon, if the race hasn't already been decided, there is an 8.3km individual time-trial. In one day, it doesn't get much tougher than this...
Stage 1 - 190.5km - Rethel-Charleville Mézières
1. Jean-Patrick Nazon (Ag2r Prevoyance, FRA) 4h 58m 15s
2. Marcus Zberg (Gerolsteiner, SWI) at same time
3. Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner, AUT) s.t
4. Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole, NOR) s.t
5. Alexandre Usov (Phonak Hearing Systems, BEL) s.t
6. Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com, AUS) s.t
7. Jens Voigt (Team CSC, GER) s.t
8. Steffen Radohcla (Iles Balares-Banesto, GER) s.t
9. José Ivan Gutierrez Palacios (Iles Balares-Banesto, SPA) s.t
10. Igor Abakoumov (Chocolade Jacques-Nixdorf, BEL) s.t
General Classification after Stage 1
1. Jean Patrick Nazon (Ag2r Prevoyance) 4h 58m 05s
2. Marcus Zberg (Gerolsteiner) at 0'04"
3. Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner) at 0'06"
4. Jens Voigt (Team CSC) s.t
5. Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile, KAZ) at 0'08"
6. Alexandre Usov (Phonak Hearing Systems, SWI) at 0'09"
7. Danilo di Luca (Saeco, ITA) s.t
8. Lance Armstrong (US Postal supported by Berry Floor, USA) s.t
9. Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) at 0'10"
10. Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com) s.t
Thanks to www.letour.fr for info and results