Mario Cipollini made cycling history today, with an assist from a dangerous ride and the Tour de France race jury.
The Italian sprinter became the first rider since 1948 to capture three consecutive stages in cycling's showcase event. His milestone was assured only after Belgian Tom Steels was stripped of the first-place finish in the sixth stage for dangerous riding.
"This annulment was justified because we almost had a serious accident," said Cipollini, a popular rider known as "The Lion King." "The sprint must be correct."
The jury ruled Steels pushed Slovakian Jan Svorada with his hip during the final sprint and veered into Cipollini.
"Tom Steels swerved sufficiently," said Jacques Sabathier, the jury president. "He shut Jan Svorada out. He didn't stick to his line and that can get dangerous."
Steels sought to win this stage and wear the leader's yellow jersey just as the race brushed by the border of his home country.
But the Belgian fans who crossed the border to see him didn't get what they were looking for. They did, however, get to witness a bit of history.
This was the first time a racer has won three straight stages at the Tour de France since Italian Gino Bartali in 1948.
Steels was awarded 172nd place in the stage--the last one in the pack that finished together, and fifth from last place.
This was not his first brush with Tour de France authorities. Steels was thrown out of the Tour in 1997 after hurling a water bottle at a rival during a sprint.
German Erik Zabel moved up to second in the stage and Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu was third. He holds the yellow jersey by 26 seconds.
Cipollini is second in the overall standings and Steels remains third. Australian Stuart O'Grady is fourth, followed by Zabel.
When the race hits the mountains next week, the sprinters will give way to the climbing specialists, and many may drop out. But, for now, Cipollini is king.