Freire triumphs on 14th stage

Oscar Freire held off a stern challenge from sprint legend Erik Zabel and Leonardo Duque to win the 14th stage of the Tour de France from Nimes to Digne-les-Bains today.

Oscar Freire held off a stern challenge from sprint legend Erik Zabel and Leonardo Duque to win the 14th stage of the Tour de France from Nimes to Digne-les-Bains today.

The points jersey holder came off the wheel of Zabel before edging out Duque to give the Rabobank team their first stage win in the 2008 tour.

Freire's victory increased his advantage in the green jersey standings to 27 points over nearest rival Thor Hushovd.

Australia's Cadel Evans retained the race leader's yellow jersey, one second ahead of Frank Schleck of Luxembourg.

Freire told Eurosport: "It was a perfect stage for me, but I felt a bit tired towards the end. It was a very fast finish as we descended, but the guys just couldn't get back to me in the end.

"(Mark) Cavendish is a dangerous sprint rider and today just fell my way. It was a great day for me.

"In the end I came from behind (Erik) Zabel and managed to win. It was a quick sprint and Cavendish said he was coming after me, but he couldn't get there today."

Evans was forced to react quickly in the closing stages of the 194.5 kilometre stage to retain the overall lead ahead of Schleck.

The Silence-Lotto rider came under threat by a late advance from a group including Schleck, but he did just enough to hold on to the yellow jersey.

He said: "Schleck wasn't the only problem during the stage, but I wanted to play it safe and I kept myself in contention."

With the Alps looming large over the race, the first attack of the day began 15km from the start as a group of 21 riders opened up a small gap ahead of the peloton.

The majority of the breakaway was soon caught by the chasing pack, with the Cofidis and Silence-Lotto teams leading the pursuit.

As the leading group were close to being swallowed up, four riders, including Spain's Jose Ivan Gutierrez, accelerated away and established a steady lead.

Gutierrez moved ahead as the leading group approached the category four Col de L'orme climb with 20km remaining, leaving his breakaway partners in his wake as they were swiftly caught by the peloton.

The 1999 junior world champion put on a brave effort, but with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees Celsius the peloton caught him in the final stages to set up a thrilling sprint finish.

The stage was again overshadowed, however, by the news the Barloworld team would be withdrawing their sponsorship from cycling following this year's Tour de France after team member Moises Duenas tested positive for EPO.

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