In the town where Joan of Arc plotted her attack on the English at Orleans, Mario Cipollini of Italy won the fastest stage in the history of the Tour de France today.
Coming off a stone bridge spanning the Loire River, the Italian surged past Germany's Erik Zabel in a photo finish to win the fourth stage of cycling's showcase race.
A favorable tailwind, cool weather, a relatively straight course and wide, flat roads all contributed to the record average speed of 31.290 mph, breaking the 1993 mark of 30.707 mph. Australia's Stuart O'Grady finished third, followed by Tom Steels, the Belgian who won the two previous stages. Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu was fifth but kept the leader's yellow jersey he captured Monday.
The 121-mile route took the riders through flat roads from the town of Laval on the Mayenne River to Blois in the Loire Valley, home to a castle of French kings. The castle is also where Joan of Arc prepared for her siege of Orleans in 1429.
As in Tuesday's third stage, two riders broke from the pack early and held a long lead. Gianpaolo Mondini of Italy and Anthony Morin of France survived an early breakaway by 10 riders. They built a lead of more than six minutes over 62 miles before the pack started gaining late in the race. The final sprint went down to a photo finish, and Zabel was deprived of a stage win on his 29th birthday.
In the overall standings, O'Grady moved up to second place, 16 seconds behind Kirsipuu. Steels, who wants to be wearing the yellow jersey when the race nears his home country later in the week, was third at 21 seconds behind. In fourth place was Lance Armstrong, the American making a comeback from testicular cancer, 24 seconds behind. Zabel was in fifth.
Armstrong plans to wait for Sunday's time trial and then the mountain stages before making his real challenge.
But this week, in the early, flat stages, it is the sprinters such as Cipollini who are in command. In winning in 3 hours 51 minutes 45 seconds, the 32-year-old Italian captured his ninth career Tour de France stage victory, and his first this year.