MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France // Cadel Evans edged the defending champion Alberto Contador in a photo finish yesterday to win the fourth stage of the Tour de France, and Thor Hushovd retained the overall lead.
The 172-kilometre route, from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne, was mostly flat but ended with a short, sharp climb favouring those who could muster bursts of speed uphill.
The finish was so close that Contador raised a fist to celebrate a stage win, but slow-motion video and a still photo showed that Evans, an Australian two-time Tour runner-up, had won.
The stage still showed that Contador, who has faced a series of early setbacks in this Tour already, is in shape to compete.
It was the first in-competition Tour stage win for Evans in seven appearances, though he inherited a stage victory in 2007 after Alexandre Vinokourov was banned from the race in a team doping scandal.
It was also the first Tour stage victory for an Australian since Simon Gerrans won Stage 15 at Italy's Prato Nevoso in 2008.
"I am very, very happy," Evans said. "To win in front of Alberto Contador is really a nice present."
Hushovd, the Norwegian world champion, who is known mainly as a sprint specialist, narrowly kept the race leader's yellow jersey by trailing not far behind in a small breakaway group.
"My only goal today was to keep the yellow jersey," said Hushovd, of Garmin-Cervelo.
"I had a great day ... I will do all I can to defend this jersey as long as possible."
The result was sure to be a disappointment for Philippe Gilbert, the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider, who turned 29 yesterday and was a favourite to win because of his prowess on course layouts like the fourth stage.
Earlier, Jurgen van de Walle of Belgium became the first rider to pull out of the race - reducing the field to 197 racers.
The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider quit due to a lingering groin pain from a crash Saturday, the team said.
Five riders who were down in the standings sped ahead of the pack by the 8.8-km mark, and built a lead of nearly five minutes on the main bunch over the next 10 miles.
But, as is common in flat rides, when the pack accelerates behind constantly changing front men who cut into the wind, the peloton tracked down and overtook the increasingly tired escapees with about 3.5km left.
That set the stage for a lone rider to scale the Mur-de-Bretagne, known by some as the "Alpe d'Huez of Brittany" - a rare climb in the mostly rolling western region and so-dubbed for the famous peak in the French Alps.
"It's a big surprise, I still quite can't believe it myself. I didn't know if I was going to have anything left to give in the final after nearly 180km with crosswinds and headwinds," said the Australian, who took over the "King of the Mountains" polka dot jersey from Gilbert.
"The first goal today was to avoid problems, and then go for the stage, if possible. For me, personally, the objectives are always the same - our plans in the GC [general classification]."
Contador and Evans both took time from key rivals such as Bradley Wiggins, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck.
Wiggins finished six seconds in arrears, and Basso and Schleck trailed home eight seconds off the pace.
Today's stage, a 164.5-km ride downhill from Carhaix towards the coastline and Cap-Frehel, with the final 70km run alongside the sea. Wind will once again be a factor, but if all things are equal, the stage favours Hushovd and the sprinters.
Participants did receive some good news about an injured compatriot - the Colombian cyclist Juan Mauricio Soler is no longer in an induced coma but faces a long recovery from a crash on June 16 during the Tour of Switzerland, when the 28 year old was left with a fractured skull, plus lung and ankle injuries.
The doctor for the Movistar team said Soler is being kept in a state of "high drowsiness".
Dr Alfredo Zuniga said that Soler has "moments of lucidity" and can respond to "easy orders".
He said doctors at the St Gallen hospital are preparing to take Soler out of intensive care, and the team are arranging to take him back to Pamplona, Spain.