(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Cadel Evans suffered probably his wettest day on the Tour de France Thursday as Spanish nemesis Alberto Contador began showing more vigilance after a disastrous first six days of racing. Evans finished the sixth stage, at 226.5 km the longest of the 21-stages, in 12th place as Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen claimed his and Team Sky' first win on the race.
Considered one of the biggest talents of his generation, Boasson Hagen out-sprinted another hot talent in Australian Matt Goss, who finished a bike length behind beating Norwegian Thor Hushovd in an uphill sprint.
A disappointed Goss, making his Tour de France debut, later admitted he had lost momentum on the way to the finish.
"I went a little bit too late, but I'd got blocked in by (Gerald) Ciolek, and ended up free-wheeling and losing some speed," said Goss, who will now switch his attention to helping teammate Mark Cavendish.
"I'm a little bit disappointed, but I can't complain, it's my first Tour de France."
After a long slog through rain, sun, and hail, avoiding danger was the main priority for Evans who is still in second place overall at 01sec behind Hushovd.
"Already it was a long day with the wind and the rain," said Evans, a two-time runner-up in 2007 and 2008.
"This is my seventh Tour and it's the most wet weather I have had in one day. And to have it happen on the longest day made it even harder."
While Evans' BMC team maintained their policy of keeping him up the front, protected from the wind and, theoretically, out of danger, his rivals were all following suit.
Three-time champion Contador, who beat Evans to victory by just 23sec in 2007, crashed and lost over a minute in stage one and crashed twice in stage five Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Saxo Bank ace's only scare was a change of bike although he was soon back on to the back of the peloton. When the going got tougher in the final, hilly three kilometers, Contador stretched out the peloton. But what looked like an attack was an attempt not to lose any more time to his rivals.
"It was a difficult day because of the weather conditions," said Contador, who is still 1:41 behind Evans and 1:30 behind fellow yellow jersey rival Andy Schleck.
"But I'm happy. It finished well. In the final I wasn't trying to attack. With five kilometers to race I was in a bad position and as I tried to get back up to the front I found myself at the head of the peloton."
Andy Schleck, the runner-up to Contador the past two years, is only 11secs behind Evans and like the Australian he has had an incident-free race so far.
Belgian Maxime Monfort, a pace-setter for Schleck in the mountains, said the general consensus in the peloton had been not to take too many risks.
"There are sprinter teams focused on stage victory and GC (general classification) teams who want to make it through the day safely. Sometimes these goals come into conflict with one another. Today they did not," he said.
Friday's mainly flat seventh stage is set to finish in a bunch sprint in Chateauroux, where Cavendish took the first of his 16 stage wins on the race. A day later the first of three days in the Massif Central mountain range
will begin to test the overall contenders.
"Our Tour will start on Saturday, so the goal for today (Thursday) and tomorrow is to conserve energy where we can," added Monfort.
Evans meanwhile is hoping his team continues in the same fashion.
"Everyone on the team is healthy and really riding well," he said. "We can look forward to the mountains, but still have a few more days to get through safely before we get there."