Cadel Evans remained in contention for the Tour de France yellow jersey after surviving a hectic finale to the third stage of the race where American Tyler Farrar broke his duck on Monday.
Farrar, competing barely a month after the death of his best friend Wouter Weylandt at the Giro d’Italia, finished off the fine lead-out work of his Garmin-Cervelo team to hand them their second victory in as many days.
With Thor Hushovd having pulled on the yellow jersey after Sunday’s 23km team time-trial in Les Essarts, the Norwegian will wear it into the fourth stage from Lorient to Brittany.
However, he is expected to hand it over to Evans, only one second off the pace and one of the few riders in the top 10 physically capable of challenging stage favourite Philippe Gilbert of Belgium on the hilly finish to stage four.
Although Australia’s 2009 world champion, a runner-up in 2007 and 2009, would rather leave Paris with the yellow jersey on July 24, it could come earlier than expected.
Evans said positioning and staying out of trouble will be important on Tuesday’s stage, which finishes with a two-kilometre ascent of the Mur de Bretagne.
“Getting into a good position in the final is always the best way to make time, which is a similar sort of tactic we used on the first stage,” said Evans.
Gilbert, who finished three seconds ahead of the Australian to win Saturday’s opening stage atop the Mont des Alouettes and take yellow, is 33sec off the pace in 29th.
He said: “Logically, you have to think that the next yellow jersey wearer will be Cadel Evans. I could maybe finished five or six seconds ahead of him maximum and that’s not enough for me to take the jersey again.”
As well as allowing him to celebrate his first win in the race, Farrar’s victory has given hope to the other sprinters demoralised by Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Highroad team.
Cavendish, a 15-time stage winner in the past three years, had a powerful lead-in to the finale.
However, the Isle of Man rider found the going tough after a final bend forced many riders to slow down and lose momentum. Despite a late burst, he could only finish fifth.
“I’m very disappointed. We took it on and we were left just a bit short with too far to go,” said Cavendish, who complained that eventual stage runner-up Romain Feillu had been like a “kamikaze”.
“I was fighting with (Jose Joaquin) Rojas into the last corner and kamikaze Feillu came flying in. He causes havoc in every sprint. He took me out on the last corner.”
Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, however, admitted they had miscalculated before then.
“We didn’t do anything right,” he told AFP. “We didn’t ride it perfect and we didn’t win because of it. We over-committed and we paid the price.
“I’m sure the teams have studied how we ride. It’s no secret, they’re catching up. But hopefully we can come back and win.”
Feillu was upbeat that Cavendish’s dominant team did not win.
“I’m happy that things are becoming a bit frayed, that we’re not subject to the domination of Cavendish,” said the Frenchman, whose team has no sprint train.
“Just because you’ve got a sprint train, it doesn’t entitle you to victory.”
Another HTC man, Tasmanian Matt Goss, echoed his team’s sentiments for the coming sprint stages.
“Unfortunately we got to the final a little bit early but as a whole we stayed together and rode well as a team,” said Goss.
“Sometimes things just don’t work out, but we’ve got plenty more chances and hopefully we’ll notch one up soon.”