Kirchen succeeds Gaul to pull on yellow jersey
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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kirchen succeeds Gaul to pull on yellow jersey

by Agence France-Presse at 6:12 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen created his own piece of Tour de France history by becoming the first Luxemburger in nearly 50 years to pull on the race's yellow jersey on Thursday.

Italian Riccardo Ricco of Saunier Duval won the sixth stage, a hilly 195.5km race from Aigurande to here in the Massif Central which played host to the first skirmishes between the big race favourites.

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde finished second behind the Italian but failed to take any time from overall victory favourite Cadel Evans of Australia, who finished third - also at one second behind Ricco.

Kirchen finished seventh overall last year but is considered an outside bet due to his comparative weakness in the high mountains. The last rider from the landlocked Duchy of Luxembourg to wear the race's yellow jersey was legendary climber Charly Gaul, who first wore it in 1958 and last did so a year later.

But it took some last gasp drama for the race lead to change hands. Gerolsteiner's race leader Stefan Schumacher tumbled to the ground after hitting Kirchen's wheel in the final 500 metres of the day's final climb.

That allowed Kirchen, who finished fifth at four seconds behind Ricco having started the stage 12secs behind Schumacher, to take the race lead. Kirchen now has a six-second lead on Evans and a 16-sec lead on the unfortunate Schumacher, but Friday's second medium mountain stage, and Sunday's first day in the Pyrenees, could test his resolve.

"I'll take it day by day, and I will try my hardest to stay with the best climbers in the Pyrenees," admitted Kirchen, who only gave up the sprinters' green jersey on Tuesday. "But I'm in good form and this will give me confidence for the coming days."

Kirchen had been tipped for the stage win here, the finish line of which was at the end of an 11.5km climb. But after a peloton of around 40 riders caught American Christian Vandevelde and Italian Leonardo Piepoli, the latter, who rides for Saunier Duval, providing a perfect decoy for Ricco's later charge, the Luxemburger could not unleash one of his trademark hill sprints.

"I couldn't launch a final sprint because I got blocked," added Kirchen, although it was his manoeuvre that led to Schumacher's fall.

In the end, Ricco pulled off the front ahead of Valverde in the closing metres after the gradient had levelled out, and was left to come over the finish unhindered for his first stage win on the race. Valverde and Evans finished on Ricco's wheel as the Italian won in 4hr 57min 52sec.

"I've been thinking about this stage since the start of the Tour," said the Italian, who finished runner-up to Spaniard Alberto Contador at the Giro d'Italia in June. "I've come here primarily to win a stage, so it's nice to achieve that first aim - and it's good to beat a big champion like Valverde."

Ricco was quick to share out the glory to Piepoli, whose late escape with Vande Velde forced Valverde's team to spend vital energy chasing them down.

"Piepoli did some great work today," added Ricco, who said he no longer has ideas of trying to finish high up in the race's general classification. "I had enough stress at the Giro trying to do that. I don't want to have to go out and battle every day. Now I'm looking forward to the stages in the Pyrenees and Alps."

Schumacher was unhappy after his setback cost him the chance to keep the yellow jersey, but was not bitter. "It was one of those things - it wasn't deliberate," sighed the German, who was unable to benefit from a rule normally allowing a rider who falls in the final three kilometres to be given the time of the group he was with at the time. A summit finish is an exception. "But it's still terrible to lose the yellow jersey in such a way, especially after the team worked so hard to keep it today."

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