Hunter becomes first South African stage winner
MONTPELLIER, France -- As the Tour de France winds on toward the end of its second week, the stages are often more about the big losers than the big winners.
Count Christophe Moreau among the former and Robert Hunter among the latter.
Moreau had made the French believe that they might get a new home-grown winner at the Tour de France.
But that hope was dealt a serious setback in Thursday's 11th stage, when Moreau was dropped behind by a pack that was speeding like a runaway train and led by stage winner Robert Hunter of South Africa.
Overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark kept up with the pack and his advantage didn't change against his main rivals -- except Moreau, who dropped to 14th place from sixth and whose deficit nearly doubled, to 6 minutes, 38 seconds.
"I think he definitely lost his chance of winning the Tour today," Rasmussen said of Moreau, almost gleeful over having one less challenger.
Hunter became the first South African to win a stage at the Tour, winning Thursday's sprint finish after the 113.4-mile route from Marseille to Montpellier.
Hunter isn't a threat to Rasmussen, who leads two Spaniards in second and third: Alejandro Valverde was 2:35 back and Iban Mayo trailed by 2:39. Other chasers include Cadel Evans of Australia, in fourth, 2:41 back, and U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer, 3:53 behind.
Standings after Stage 11
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Moreau was the day's biggest loser, much like one-time favorite Alexandre Vinokourov was after a crash in Stage 5 dealt a big blow to his victory ambitions.
And it could have been worse for Moreau.
The Frenchman crashed in Thursday's hot, wind-swept ride along the Mediterranean from Marseille to Montpellier, shredding his blue, white and red national champion's uniform over his left thigh as if he had been attacked by a large dog.
It was the latest nasty spill at the race this year. The most banged-up squad, T-Mobile, lost leader Michael Rogers of Australia and Britain's Mark Cavendish to crashes. Patrik Sinkewitz was hospitalized back home in Germany after he collided with a fan after Sunday's stage, and Markus Burghardt ran into a spectator's dog Tuesday but remains in competition. The dog was OK.
After his mishap Thursday, Moreau got back on his bike and returned to the pack, but Vinokourov's Astana team cranked up the peloton's pace -- leaving the French veteran in its dust.
Moreau has given the French hope before. He finished in the top 12 in each of the last three Tours. For two days in 2001, he donned yellow after winning the prologue time-trial.
I'm really happy. I have no words to describe what I'm feeling right now. I've done the Tour de France six times, and I'm the first South African ever to ride in it.
Even at 36, the AG2R team leader had shown his best form in years heading into this Tour: He won the Dauphine Libere stage race -- a key Tour tuneup -- in June, and stunningly won France's road championship a week before the big event.
Five-time champion Bernard Hinault was the last Frenchman to win the Tour, in 1985. Four years later, Laurent Fignon placed second to Greg Lemond by a record-low 8 seconds. The last French podium finish was Richard Virenque's second in 1997.
With seven-time Lance Armstrong retired in 2005, Moreau had been among those looking to fill the void. A string of doping scandals over the last year thinned the field of contenders and improved his chances.
In his role as perennial French hope, Moreau had said he wasn't going to give himself any undue pressure to win this year.
On Thursday, he tried to make the best of losing ground to Rasmussen.
"It's not over. I was hurting in my hip, my morale took a blow," Moreau said. "But three minutes -- it's limited. ... I'm going to try to put myself together before the big mountain stages."
The Tour heads into medium-sized mountains Friday for the 12th stage, a 110.9-mile run from Montpellier to Castres, a stage likely to favor breakaway riders.
Challengers like Moreau are looking to Saturday's time-trial in Albi for a chance to make up ground against Rasmussen, who admits he is a "pure climber" and doesn't fare well in races against the clock.
Look for time-trial stars like Andreas Kloeden of Germany, an Astana teammate of Vinokourov who is 3:50 behind the leader, to make his mark.
Three days in the Pyrenees loom at the start of the third week before the July 29 finish on the Champs-ElysDees in Paris.
One former French star said Moreau's not likely to be on the podium after Thursday's drab performance.
"For winning the Tour, his chances are nil," said Bernard Thevenet, who won in 1975 and 1977. "All that we want is a French winner ... it's not for this year. We'll wait some more."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press