McEwen takes stage but Zabel claims yellow

Erik Zabel bounced back from the disappointment of yesterday’s defeat on home soil to claim the Tour de France yellow jersey today.

Erik Zabel bounced back from the disappointment of yesterday’s defeat on home soil to claim the Tour de France yellow jersey today.

The German, pipped by Oscar Freire in Saarbrucken, was out-muscled by Australian champion Robbie McEwen in Reims but gladly settled for a place at the top of the general classification.

Another Aussie Baden Cooke, of Francaise des Jeux, took third.

It was a personal triumph for McEwen, matching his beating of Italian sprint-king Mario Cippolini in the Giro d’Italia.

The Lotto rider, a serious contender for the points competition - also led by Zabel - is up to second overall.

He would have gone top if Zabel had not picked up precious bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints to overhaul Rubens Bertogliati, who started the day in yellow but is now back in third.

‘‘The longer you have to wait for one (a stage win) the more frustrating it is,’’ said McEwen.

‘‘I might even get to wear the green jersey tomorrow because Erik’s got the yellow.

‘‘We were riding into a head-wind all day so I knew I could go for it a bit further out.’’

Bertogliati at least has the consolation of the white jersey as he tops the under-25s standings ahead of Britain’s David Millar, who is eighth overall.

Defending champion Lance Armstrong again had a quiet day but is well placed in fifth.

The stage turned into a protracted chase of breakaway duo Jacy Durand of La Francaise des Jeux and Franck Renier of Bonjour who led for over 160km of the 174.5km stage.

Durand, renowned for his reckless attacks, lived up to his reputation by breaking alongside Franck Renier with just six kilometres on the clock.

The route took the riders across some of the worst killing fields in World War I but, with tomorrow’s team time trial on the horizon, there was more than an air of phoney war about today’s riding.

No-one in the peloton appeared willing to take the initiative to chase them down until the duo’s lead sailed over the 11 minute mark as light rain started to fall.

While Renier and Durand shared the top two placings in the intermediate sprints, Zabel used the lethargy of the peloton to pick up bonus seconds.

The time collected at Saint-Menehould and Suippes moved the German ahead of Bertogliadi in the general classification and cemented his lead in the sprints competition.

Stuart O’Grady, one of his rivals for the green jersey, had a troubled ride as Credit Agricole continue to suffer through the first days of the Tour.

After Christophe Moreau’s falls on Sunday and Thor Hushovd’s cramps yesterday, the Australian - who suffers from a high heart-rate - dropped off the back of the peloton for medical attention and laboured for long stretches.

Christophe Mengin, who lost the polka dot jersey to Stephane Berges of AG2R yesterday, regained the lead in the King of the Mountains competition.

The Francaise des Jeux rider was first over the Cote de Gravelotte to pick up the points needed to overhaul his countryman.

As Reims approached Renier and Durand were clearly struggling and they eventually accepted the inevitable, the peloton sweeping them up with just seven kilometres left.

Bertogliadi, aware of Zabel’s advantage, swept to the front of the peloton but he needed something extraordinary to avoid surrendering the yellow jersey.

And the Swiss rider, making his Tour debut, could not put enough between his wheels and those of the German.

McEwen broke early for the line, leaving Zabel no choice but to go one on one with the Lotto man.

The Australian won that battle but could not prevent Zabel from assuming the race leadership.

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