Thor Hushovd takes fourth stage honours
Norway's Thor Hushovd, riding for the Credit Agricole team, prevailed in a mass sprint for the fourth stage honours of the Tour de France, a 193 km run from Villers-Cotterets and Joigny, on Wednesday.
Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara (CSC), winner of the prologue and Tuesday's second stage, retained the leader's yellow jersey when coming home in the body of the peloton.
The 29-year-old Hushovd, spurred to the line by his teammate, New Zealand's Julian Dean, beat home South African's Robert Hunter for his fifth career stage win in the Tour De France.
Spain's Oscar Freire took third in front of German veteran Erik Zabel.
Hushovd, reflecting on his productive day, said, "Julian did a terrific job, I had complete confidence in him."
"When you saw what he did setting off 450 m out you could say that he was the best in the world for setting up a sprint."
His success moved him up to second in the overall standings, 29 seconds behind with Germany's Andreas Kloden lying third at 33 seconds.
After the previous day's desperate chase of a four-man breakaway had led to Cancellara's shock win the peloton were in no mood to endure a similar scenario.
In the latter stages the bunch proved positively more alert as they chased down a five-man break which had formed at the 31.5 km mark thanks to Frenchman Mathieu Sprick, whose attack prompted four other riders, including former stage winner Juan Antonio Flecha of Rabobank, to join in.
Thirty kilometres further on, their advantage had grown to over three and a half minutes. Shortly after the halfway mark of the race it went to four minutes.
Cofidis rider Sylvain Chavanel's presence among the lead group meant he had a double task: helping with relays in the breakaway, and trying to take as many points as possible in the battle for the polka dot jersey, being worn by his teammate Stephane Auge back in the bunch.
Auge took the polka dot jersey from Britain's David Millar on Tuesday, however the Frenchman held a slim lead.
After Millar had beat Auge on the day's first classified climb, the Scot finishing second behind Aleksandre Kushynski, Chavanel pushed ahead to claim the points on the second climb ahead of Flecha.
Up front meanwhile CSC's Cancellara was assuming his role as race leader with authority, despite the likelihood of him soon relinquishing the yellow jersey once the race hits the Alps on Saturday.
Mindful of Tuesday lethargic pace, CSC controlled the chasing peloton to keep the four leaders on a relatively tight leash.
Once their lead had grown to four minutes at the 110 km mark, however, CSC began to up the pace.
Belgium's Tom Boonen, who was among the sprinters to be stunned by Cancellara's successful drive to the finish on Tuesday, sent his teammate Bram Tankink to the front to lend a hand to CSC.
Australian Robbie McEwen did likewise, sending Wim Vansevenant up to the front of the bunch.
With 48 km to race, some of it over tight, undulating roads, the peloton had reduced their deficit to two minutes.
The five men at the front were resisting well, however the pain of being out on their own all day with little respite between relays began to tell.
The bunch had reduced their deficit to 1:44 with 33 km to race, prompting Flecha to attack at the front and with seven kilometres to go the leaders had been reunited with the main group.
Thursday's fifth stage is a 182 km run from Chablis to Autun.