MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France -- Cadel Evans edged defending champion Alberto Contador in a photo finish Tuesday to win the fourth stage of the Tour de France, while Thor Hushovd kept the overall lead.
The mostly flat 107-mile course from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne with a short, steep uphill finish underlined two aspects of the race so far: Evans has been nearly flawless; Contador can never be ruled out.
Contact information ( * required )
The tense finale was so close that Contador raised a fist to celebrate what the three-time Tour champ believed was his victory, but a photograph at the line showed Evans had won.
Still, the ride left little doubt that Contador, who has faced a series of early setbacks already, is in shape to compete. With his second-place finish, he regained several seconds against other some likely title contenders.
"I still can't quite believe it. ... It was a very close final, I didn't even know if I had it on the line myself," Evans said. "To win in front of Alberto Contador is really a nice present."
But the Spaniard's strong finish demonstrated "Contador again proving himself. He was up there and riding well," Evans said. "He's never a guy you can underestimate."
Evans, a two-time runner-up, scored his first in-competition Tour stage win in seven appearances -- the Australian inherited a stage victory in 2007 after Alexandre Vinokourov was barred in a team doping scandal. It was also the first Tour stage victory for an Aussie since Simon Gerrans won Stage 15 in 2008.
Hushovd, the Norwegian world champion who is mainly 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."
Evans finished in 4 hours, 11 minutes, 39 seconds -- the same time as Contador, third-place Vinokourov and Hushovd, who was sixth. Overall, Hushovd held a one-second lead over Evans.
Frank Schleck of Luxembourg rose to third place from seventh by staying with the seven-man group, including Evans and Contador, though he didn't gain any time on Hushovd and is four seconds back overall.
Contador remains 1:42 behind Hushovd in 41st place after two dismal opening days at the Tour, first being stalled by a crash on Saturday and then losing time with his Saxo Bank squad in the team time trial on Sunday.
But on Tuesday the Spaniard finished eight seconds faster than possibly his biggest overall rival -- Andy Schleck, Frank's younger brother and the Tour runner-up the past two years.
It was a message not lost on Andy Schleck.
It "isn't good, but it's not a catastrophe," he said. "I never thought that he was out of the race. He just had bad luck the first day and his team wasn't suited for the time trial."
Contador, who expressed frustration about a lack of "luck" in recent days, said he was out to test his competition, even if this stage wasn't crucial.
"I wanted to see how my rivals were, to see if I could take some time off them," Contador said. "Getting the stage win, when I was so close, would have been a great joy."
This has been a nearly impeccable Tour so far for Evans. His BMC team fared well in the time trial, and he has avoided the many crashes that have entangled Contador and Andy Schleck.
With less than 12 miles left Tuesday, Evans ran into trouble with his chain and had to stop briefly with a team car before getting an escort from teammates to catch the pack.
Omega Pharma-Lotto rider Philippe Gilbert, who turned 29 Tuesday, was favored 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 because of lingering groin pain from a crash Saturday, the team said.
Riders set off under rain in the coastal city of Lorient, whose name is derived from the 17th century shipyards and port for trading ships that hauled spices, teas, silk, porcelain and other goods from Asia, or "The Orient."
It seemed as if the whole pack began the ride in rain jackets, but gradually peeled them off as skies dried up. The roads were mostly wet, though there were some dry patches on the weaving course.
Five riders who were low in the standings sped ahead of the pack by the 5.5-mile 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 2½ miles left.
That set the stage for the leaders to break out alone to scale the Mur-de-Bretagne, which features a super-steep patch known by some as the "Alpe d'Huez of Brittany" after the famous peak in the French Alps.
"This was a short, steep climb -- not a mountain pass," Contador said, hinting of the importance of stages in the Pyrenees and Alps in the second and third weeks. "Cadel Evans is showing a lot of strength, but even if Andy or others lost a few seconds, it doesn't mean they're not in shape."