COMPIEGNE, France (AP) – Tour de France leader Fabian Cancellara has a message for coach Bjarne Riis: Thank you, and wish you were here.
The Swiss rider and his CSC teammates popped open champagne after his opportunistic victory in Tuesday’s wind-swept third stage, the longest of the three-week race. Cancellara extended his overall lead as cycling’s showcase event left Belgium and returned home to France.
Riis, however, had to miss the celebration. He is not at the race after confessing to using a banned performance enhancer during his 1996 Tour victory, a new blow for a sport battered by doping revelations the last 14 months.
Cancellara won Saturday’s prologue and has been the only rider to wear the leader’s yellow jersey. He credits his top form to Riis’ instruction.
“I’d have to say ‘Thank you.’ … He is the team,” Cancellara told The Associated Press. “I was sure wishing he was here.”
Riis’ absence has been hard, he said, “but we are professionals.”
Cancellara had feared losing the yellow jersey to one of four breakaway riders along the 147-mile route from Waregem, Belgium, to Compiegne, northeast of Paris.
The pack caught up near the finish. Cancellara, having been shielded from high winds by teammates, had enough left to surge ahead and overtake the four with hundreds of yards to go.
“I have no words after winning something like that,” he said. “I attacked. It was instinctive.”
Sprint specialist Erik Zabel of Germany was second and Danilo Napolitano of Italy was third. They and the trailing pack took 6 hours, 36 minutes, 15 seconds to complete the course, averaging an unusually low 22 mph.
“It was a really long day but because of the wind we couldn’t go faster. We are not machines,” said Cancellara, who was caught in a group crash Monday and slightly injured his left hand.
All 187 riders that began the stage finished, carefully negotiating sharp turns and cobblestone patches near the end.
Cancellara extended his lead by 10 seconds by gaining bonus points for the victory. He leads Andreas Kloeden of Germany by 33 seconds. David Millar of Britain is third, 41 seconds behind, and George Hincapie of the U.S. is fourth, 43 seconds back.
The Tour, which began in London for the first time this year, features mostly flat early stages that favor sprinters. The fourth stage Wednesday is another one – a 120-mile ride from Villers-Cotterets to Joigny.
On Saturday, the race reaches the Alps for three days, and the climbers most likely will begin moving closer to the overall lead. Other key stages are time trials in the 13th stage and the next-to-last stage before the July 29 finish on the Champs-ElysDees in Paris.
Pre-race favorites include Kloeden, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, Levi Leipheimer of the U.S., Cadel Evans of Australia and Alejandro Valverde of Spain.
The Tour is hoping to move past the string of doping scandals, allegations and admissions during the last 14 months. Most notable were Floyd Landis’ positive test for synthetic testosterone in the last Tour, and a blood-doping scandal in Spain known as Operation Puerto.
Tour organizers said 53 riders submitted blood tests Tuesday morning. There were no abnormalities, and all received the go-ahead to race. The six teams tested were: Astana, Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, Francaise des Jeux, Predictor-Lotto and AG2R.