The first week of the Tour de France favors sprinters, and Mario Cipollini has made the most of it.
Living up to his billing as the "King of Sprints," the engaging Italian today became the first rider since 1930 to win four straight stages.
Now, the spotlight moves to Lance Armstrong: arguably the overall favorite and certainly the emotional one, with his stirring comeback from testicular cancer. The American, who won the race prologue, is favored in Sunday's crucial time trial.
Already in fifth place overall, Armstrong could soon be wearing the leader's yellow jersey again, as the race hits the Alps for a series of grueling mountain stages.
"Lance just elicits confidence, because he believes in himself so much," said Mark Gorski, general manager of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "If he believes, then everybody believes."
Susan Marston, a fan from Boise, Idaho, who watched the race today, was more concise.
"Lance is just on fire," Marston said.
Armstrong stayed safely in the pack today, as his team tried to make sure he stayed in form for Sunday's time trial. His coach ordered teammates to surround him so he would be protected from the wind and wouldn't expend too much energy.
The seventh stage was marked by a long and gallant breakaway by Frenchmen Jacky Durand and Lylian Lebreton, who were caught by the pack with 2.5 miles to go, after lasting nearly 124 miles.
The 142-mile route took the riders from Avesnes-sur-Helpe, near the Belgian border, past fields of corn to Thionville, next to Luxembourg.
For the seventh time in as many days, the race ended in a furious sprint to the finish.
After catching the breakaway riders, the teams leading the pack jockeyed to get their star sprinters into position. They were all there: Cipollini, Erik Zabel of Germany, Australian Stuart O'Grady, Belgian Tom Steels and Jaan Kirsipuu, the Estonian who has held the yellow jersey since Monday.
Zabel, who fell with 21.7 miles to go but recovered and joined the sprinters at the front, suddenly slipped out of his pedals with about 75 yards to race. Amazingly, he stayed on the bike.