Oscar Freire (Rabobank) beat Robbie McEwen (Davitamon), Erik Zabel (Milram) and Tom Boonen in a close sprint in Dax on Tuesday as the overall contneders took it easy before the start on the mountain stages in the Pyrenees.

Yet again no team was able to control the bunch in the final kilometres of the pan-flat 169.5km stage, with the leading four riders all across the road as they crossed the line. McEwen came from behind after being blocked and dived to take the centre of the road but Freire held him off with a well-timed throw of the bike. The two were elbow to elbow as they crossed the line but congratulated each other on their excellent bike handling skills.

It was Freire?s second win in this year?s Tour de France. The three-time world champion also won stage five to Caen on Thursday, when he beat Tom Boonen.

?The Tour sprints are always difficult and this one was more difficult than I expected,? Freire admitted.

?McEwen was very strong and so I was lucky. Now the sprints are over we?ll be riding for Denis Menchov. He?s got a great chance of winning the Tour.?

Sergei Gonchar (T-Mobile) finished safely in the bunch and so is still in the yellow jersey. Floyd Landis (Phonak) is second at 1-00 and Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) is third at 1-08.

Close to his former home in Biarritz, David Millar (Saunier Duval) finished 51st in the bunch and is now 24th overall, 3-38 behind Gonchar. Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) finished 105th at 13 seconds. He is now 147th at 18-08.

LONG BREAK

Yet again a long breakaway by Christian Knees (Milram), Stephane Augé (Cofidis) and Walter Beneteau (Bouygues) provided the only early action during the stage. Knees attacked after eight kilometres, he was joined by Auge and Beneteau and the bunch let them go as the race passed through the Bordeaux vineyards.

The three gained almost eight minutes but the sprinters’ teams worked together and gradually pulled them back on the straight roads through the forest of the Landes region. The three were eventually caught four kilometres from the finish and the sprinters took over yet again.

TIME FOR THE MOUNTAINS

The Pyrenees start on Wednesday with the 190km tenth stage from Cambo-les Bains to Pau. The stage ends with a flat final 30kms but the early Col de Soudet (Hors category, 14.7km at 7.3 avg) and the Col de Marie Blanque (Cat 1, 9.3km, 7.7%) could cause some problems after a week of flat roads.

Things get more serious on Thursday with the 206km 11th stage from Tarbes to Cal d?Aran. The climbing kicks off with the legendary Col du Tourmalet (Hors cat, 18.3km, 7.7% avg) after 50km and then crosses three other category one climbs before finishing in Spain at the summit of the Puerto de Beret. The final climb is relatively easy but the stage will be decisive.

Official Results

1 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 169.5km in 3.35.24
2 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
3 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
4 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step-Innergetic
5 Cristian Moreni (Ita) Cofidis
6 Isaac Galvez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears
7 Francisco Ventoso (Spa) Saunier Duval
8 Luca Paolini (Ita) Liquigas
9 David Kopp (Ger) Gerolsteiner
10 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole all same time

Overall standings after stage 9

1 Serguei Gonchar (Ukr) T-Mobile 38.14.17
2 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 1.00
3 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 1.08
4 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile 1.45
5 Andreas Klöden (Ger) T-Mobile 1.50
6 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 1.52
7 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
8 David Zabriskie (USA) Team CSC 1.53
9 Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner 2.03
10 Christophe Moreau (Fra) AG2R-Prevoyance 2.07