Belgian takes sixth stage of Tour de France

Belgium’s Tom Boonen won Friday’s sixth stage of the Tour de France in a sprint finish, while Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara retained the leader’s yellow jersey for a seventh straight day.

Boonen won the 199,5km trek from the Burgundy town of Semur-en-Auxois toward the foot of the Alps in Bourg-en-Bresse.

Friday’s was the last stage before three days in the Alps.

Boonen, a former world champion, collected his fifth Tour stage victory and his first since 2005 by outpacing Spain’s Oscar Freire and German Erik Zabel in the final dash.

“I’m really happy,” said Boonen. “The legs have been strong from the first day, but this year things haven’t happened so well. I haven’t had a lot of luck.” He added: “Friday the 13th from now on is a lucky day.”

Cancellara finished in the trailing pack, and holds a 33-second lead over Germany’s Andreas Kloeden in second.
Filippo Pozzato of Italy is third, 35 seconds behind.

Kloeden and his Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, both seen as potential title contenders, cruised in the back of the pack to nurse painful injuries sustained in crashes during Thursday’s ride through hilly terrain.

Britain’s Bradley Wiggins took the spotlight for most of the stage, breaking away after 2km and building a lead of more than 17 minutes before the pack caught him during the last 7km.

Steeper climbs loom on Saturday as the riders embark on three days in the Alps, starting with a 197,5km course from Bourg-en-Bresse to Le Grand-Bornand featuring the category-one climb at La Colombiere pass.

Cancellara, a time-trial specialist, has said he doesn’t expect to remain in yellow through the Alps. Instead, climbers such as the Astana duo and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, American Levi Leipheimer, Denis Menchov of Russia and Australia’s Cadel Evans could try to make a move.

“Now, we’re really going to see the leaders who are going to want to position for the overall standings,” said French champion Christophe Moreau, who won last month’s Dauphine Libere stage race. “The setbacks for Astana’s Vinokourov and Kloeden ... are going to change things.”

This year’s 94th edition of the Tour has been unusually slow, with an average speed of 39,9km/h so far. After the sixth stage last year, riders were averaging 42,8km/h.

At the same time in 2005, it was 48km/h and Lance Armstrong was in the yellow jersey on way to his record-setting seventh straight Tour victory.

While the route is never exactly the same from one year to the next, the early stages typically go through the flat farmland of northern France. Many riders said high headwinds were to blame for the slow pace, but others cited nerves and caution ahead of the Alps.

“Races are always different,” said Britain’s David Millar of Saunier Duval, “You look at the fastest one, and yeah, perhaps people were doped, but also there’s a ... wind the whole race.”—Sapa-AP