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Twenty-five year old Lithuanian Gediminas Bagdonas of the AnPost team won the seventh stage of the 2011 Tour of Britain from a small break of six riders who had been away for much of the 199km of racing across Suffolk and Norfolk.
The seventh stage panned out as so many had predicted, with a break forming soon after the start in a sunny Bury St Edmonds. Six riders were allowed to move clear once it was clear that none were an immediate threat to the race leaders. The first hour of racing saw 28 miles covered and with cross tail-winds predicted for much of the first half of the stage, it looked like being a fast-paced day for everyone.
The break consisted of Claude Mathieu (Europcar), Gediminas Bagdonas (AnPost), Richard Handley (Raleigh), Ian Wilkinson (Endura), Wouter Sybrandy (Sigma) and Stijn Neirynck (Topsport). Neirynck, at almost six minutes down on Lars Boom, was the biggest threat if the break was to build a significant lead. Initially that lead grew only slowly, but it continued to increase as the race looped past Ipswich and entered Norfolk for the long pull north and then west towards the finish.
The alarm bells finally began to ring for Rabobank when the lead went out to over six minutes, making Neirynck the virtual leader on the road. With the weather also taking a turn for the worse, with squally rain falling, the break was finally stabilised at just over seven minutes.
The wind also became less favourable, and with Rabobank and HTC beginning to wind things up at the front of the peloton, finally the break's lead began to fall as the race passed to the west of Norwich and entered its final 60km.
At 30km to go, the riders in the break were still working very hard, but they had seen their lead cut to under four minutes. With Lars Boom's overall lead now secure, it was down to who wanted it most - the sprinters' teams, led by HTC, who were chasing, or the riders in the break seeking a prestigeous win.
By the 25km to go banner, the lead was down to 3 minutes 26 seconds. The formula used to predict whether breaks will be caught suggests that it's generally possible to close down one minute for every 10km of the stage remaining. By that reckoning, the break was going to survive, though a puncture for Wouter Sybrandy didn't help their cause.
However, Sybrandy, one of the unsung heroes of the Sigma-Sport team, did amazingly well to re-join the other five riders in the break after a lengthy chase, ecouraged no doubt by the news that the bunch were not reeling them in as quickly as expected. Further good news for the break followed, with HTC's Mark Renshaw puncturing, a disruption the chase could ill-afford.
At the 10km to go banner, the odds had finally tipped decisively in favour of the break, with the gap on or around the 3 minute mark and the six, who had been away for most of the longest stage of the race, began to turn their thoughts to winning the stage, whilst sensibly continuing to work well together.
In the end, it was Lithuanian Gediminas Bagdonas (AnPost) who took the win from Endura's Ian Wilkinson in a very close sprint finish. In doing so, Bagdonas disappointing fans of Raleigh, Endura and Sigma Sport, who had been hoping for a first win in the Tour for a "domestic" team since the race was re-established in its current form.
Mathieu Claude (Europcar) and Stijn Neirynck (Topsport Vlaanderen) were the riders edged out at the finish, claiming third and fourth respectively, whilst Richard Handley (Team Raleigh) was fifth at four seconds and an understandably tired Wouter Sybrandy (Sigma Sport-Specialized) sixth at 11 seconds.
Mark Cavendish won the bunch sprint at the head of the main field, but it had been a day for the men of the break to have their moment in the sun!
Lars Boom still leads the race by 28 seconds from Leopold Koenig (Team NetApp), with the top British rider Daniel Lloyd (Team Garmin - Cervelo) a further second back in third.
Barring a remarkable piece of misfortune in the short time trial and circuit race of the last day, Boom effectively has the race sewn up, which means that the London crowds should be treated to some great racibng as the teams who haven't really made an impact so far, try to make amends.
Team Sky, in particular, will be looking for a stage win to offset their disappointments so far. They've dominated the race for large chunks of the last week, but a combination of bad luck and some inspired riding by Boom, in particular, mean they are in danger of going home empty handed.
POST-STAGE RIDER REACTION ON TWITTER
Ian Wilkinson "won most combative rider today plus 2nd on stage. So close so far. Argh! Most excellent 200k"
Ian Wilkinson: "made a arse of the sprint. Different sensations in the legs after 200km than after an hour crit. Must practice more! "
Mark Cavendish: "Impressive! I haven't seen so many spectators for a bike race in UK since TourDeFrance2007. So much support! Thanks everyone for turning out."
Andy Tennant: "another day done and another trip to the forest for me. @swiftybswift in calling me bush man now as i keep ending up in the hedge!"
Andy Tennant: "i seem to have half the forest floor in my head all full of mud. have to stay like this for 2 hours as well gr8!"
Ben Swift "@tennanto that was so funny though. I felt pretty bad for laughing least bus man is ok though"
Mark McNally (Team-mate of the stage winner): "nice one wilks you were my secondary favourite in that break but geddys like a big lithuanian steam train when he's goin!"
Russell Hampton: "Bravo suffolk and norfolk massive crowds on the @TourofBritain route! Best stage for crowds so far!"
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Stage Results (Full Stage Results)
1 Gediminas Bagdonas An Post - Sean Kelly 4h 33' 17''
2 Ian Wilkinson Endura Racing st
3 Mathieu Claude Team Europcar st
4 Stijn Neirynck Topsport Vlaanderen st
5 Richard Handley** Team Raleigh at 0' 4''
6 Wouter Sybrandy Sigma Sport-Specialized at 0' 11''
7 Mark Cavendish HTC Highroad at 1' 23''
8 Andrew Fenn** An Post - Sean Kelly st
9 Giacomo Nizzolo** Leopard Trek st
10 Geraint Thomas Sky ProCycling st
11 Tobyn Horton Motorpoint st
12 Joost Posthuma Leopard Trek st
13 Robert Förster UnitedHealthcare st
14 Iker Camano Endura Racing st
15 Tom Murray Sigma Sport-Specialized st
1 Lars Boom Rabobank 47' 58''
2 Leopold Koenig Team NetApp at 0' 28''
3 Daniel Lloyd Team Garmin - Cervelo at 0' 29''
4 Linus Gerdemann Leopard Trek at 0' 31''
5 Stephen Cummings Sky ProCycling at 0' 32''
6 Jan Barta Team NetApp st
7 Jelle Wallays** Topsport Vlaanderen st
8 Jonathan Tiernan Locke Rapha Condor - Sharp st
9 Iker Camano Endura Racing at 0' 50''
10 Joost Posthuma Leopard Trek at 0' 52''
11 Michael Rogers Sky ProCycling at 1' 16''
12 Geraint Thomas Sky ProCycling at 1' 49''
13 Boy Van Poppel UnitedHealthcare at 1' 51''
14 Jan-Bert Lindeman** Vacansoleil - DCM at 1' 54''
15 Mark Cavendish HTC Highroad at 2' 11''
16 Andrew Fenn** An Post - Sean Kelly st
17 Bram Tankink Rabobank at 2' 14''
18 Dominic Klemme Leopard Trek at 2' 16''
19 Dan Craven Rapha Condor - Sharp at 2' 25''
20 Rory Sutherland UnitedHealthcare at 2' 36''
1 Lars Boom Rabobank 52
2 Mark Cavendish HTC Highroad 49
3 Geraint Thomas Sky ProCycling 47
4 Stijn Neirynck Topsport Vlaanderen 30
5 Mark Renshaw HTC Highroad 29
1 Pieter Ghyllebert An Post - Sean Kelly 36
2 Gediminas Bagdonas An Post - Sean Kelly 15
3 Russell Hampton Sigma Sport-Specialized 13
4 Lars Boom Rabobank 11
5 Mark McNally** An Post - Sean Kelly 10
1 Jonathan Tiernan Locke Rapha Condor - Sharp 71
2 Russell Hampton Sigma Sport-Specialized 48
3 Stephen Cummings Sky ProCycling 30
4 Linus Gerdemann Leopard Trek 28
5 Jack Bauer Endura Racing 20
1 Sky ProCycling 2h 27' 21''
2 Leopard Trek at 0' 13''
3 Rabobank at 3' 0''
4 Team NetApp at 5' 54''
5 Rapha Condor - Sharp at 5' 56''
With all the serious climbing now behind the riders and the field well spread on the General Classification, this is a stage where a determined break by riders well down on the leaders might well succeed. And with more than half the field more than 10 minutes behind Lars Boom, the temptation will be there for many of them.
The longest stage of the race, at almost 200km (124 miles), it snakes in an rough anti-clockwise loop from Bury St Edmonds, via Ipswich and then up through the heart of Norfolk, before finishing in Sandringham, in the NW of the county. Although not quite the pan-flat county it's often portrayed as, Norfolk's main feature, from a racing perspective, is that is can be exposed and windswept in bad weather and with heavy showers promised, it could be a tough stage.