Two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of BMC held off a late charge from Alberto Contador to claim a prestigious victory on the fourth stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday.
Norwegian Thor Hushovd, tipped to lose the yellow jersey after a brutal two-kilometre finishing climb, held on to the race lead after the 172.5km ride from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne.
Reigning world champion Hushovd upset predictions to finish sixth on the stage and keep his 01sec lead on Evans intact ahead of Wednesday’s fifth stage to Cap Frehel.
“Everyone wants to take the jersey off me, but I’m going to hold on to it as long as possible,” said Hushovd, who took the race lead after his Garmin-Cervelo team won the 23km team time-trial on Sunday.
Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert, who won the opening stage on a similar finish at Mont des Alouettes, was expected for a repeat on his 29th birthday.
But on a finish designed for the ‘punchers’ who excel in the hilly one-day classics, he could only finish in fifth place as Evans continued his promising start to the race.
“Normally it’s a perfect finish for me, but I wasn’t having a great day,” said Gilbert, who earlier this season swept the hilly ‘Ardennes Classics’ - Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
It is Evans’ first win on the race since he was handed victory from the 2007 13th stage time trial after Alexandre Vinokourov was disqualified for doping.
“It’s a big surprise, I still quite can’t believe it myself,” said Evans, who overcame extra stress on the way to the climb when he had to change bikes and get back into the peloton.
“With 15km to go I think someone crashed into my rear derailleur (gear mechanism) and I had to change bikes. (Team-mate) Marcus Burghardt helped me out... he is my hero today.”
After the peloton had successfully chased down the last riders from an earlier five-man breakaway, the punchers’ teams moved to the front to begin setting the pace for the climb.
But once on the steep, early pitches of the Mur, the specialists took over.
Reigning champion Contador, who has had a disastrous start to the Tour, kept at the front in a bid to avoid losing any more time to his key rivals for the yellow jersey.
Despite the Saxo Bank climber taking things in hand when he moved to the front of a rapidly dwindling group 1.3km from the finish, Evans and Gilbert never looked threatened by the Spaniard.
Inside the final few hundred metres Evans edged a bike length in front of the group as the climb petered out, with Contador on his wheel and Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov just behind.
As Evans drove for the finish line Contador made a bid to pass the Australian, who won by a few centimetres to claim his first win of this year’s race.
Despite being tipped as a possible stage winner, Evans admitted he had other priorities.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have anything left to give in the final after nearly 180km with crosswinds and headwinds,” added the Australian, who took over the ‘King of the Mountains’ polka dot jersey from Gilbert.
“The first goal today was to avoid problems, and then go for the stage if possible. For me personally, the objectives are always the same - our plans in the GC (general classification).”
Fellow yellow jersey contenders Bradley Wiggins finished 6sec in arrears with Ivan Basso and Schleck trailing home 8 off the pace.
Contador, however, is still 1:30 behind Schleck and 1:41 behind Evans.
“Eight seconds isn’t a lot compared to what I’ve already lost... but it’s good,” said Contador.
“I will continue to do my best but for me Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans are now more the favourites than me.”