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Hunter becomes first South African stage winner

MONTPELLIER, France -- As the Tour de France winds on toward
the end of its second week, the stages are often more about the big
losers than the big winners.

Count Christophe Moreau among the former and Robert Hunter among
the latter.

Moreau had made the French believe that they might get a new
home-grown winner at the Tour de France.

But that hope was dealt a serious setback in Thursday's 11th
stage, when Moreau was dropped behind by a pack that was speeding
like a runaway train and led by stage winner Robert Hunter of South
Africa.

Overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark kept up with the
pack and his advantage didn't change against his main rivals --
except Moreau, who dropped to 14th place from sixth and whose
deficit nearly doubled, to 6 minutes, 38 seconds.

"I think he definitely lost his chance of winning the Tour
today," Rasmussen said of Moreau, almost gleeful over having one
less challenger.

Hunter became the first South African to win a stage at the
Tour, winning Thursday's sprint finish after the 113.4-mile route
from Marseille to Montpellier.

Hunter isn't a threat to Rasmussen, who leads two Spaniards in
second and third: Alejandro Valverde was 2:35 back and Iban Mayo
trailed by 2:39. Other chasers include Cadel Evans of Australia, in
fourth, 2:41 back, and U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer, 3:53 behind.

Moreau was the day's biggest loser, much like one-time favorite
Alexandre Vinokourov was after a crash in Stage 5 dealt a big blow
to his victory ambitions.

And it could have been worse for Moreau.

The Frenchman crashed in Thursday's hot, wind-swept ride along
the Mediterranean from Marseille to Montpellier, shredding his
blue, white and red national champion's uniform over his left thigh
as if he had been attacked by a large dog.

It was the latest nasty spill at the race this year. The most
banged-up squad, T-Mobile, lost leader Michael Rogers of Australia
and Britain's Mark Cavendish to crashes. Patrik Sinkewitz was
hospitalized back home in Germany after he collided with a fan
after Sunday's stage, and Markus Burghardt ran into a spectator's
dog Tuesday but remains in competition. The dog was OK.

After his mishap Thursday, Moreau got back on his bike and
returned to the pack, but Vinokourov's Astana team cranked up the
peloton's pace -- leaving the French veteran in its dust.

Moreau has given the French hope before. He finished in the top
12 in each of the last three Tours. For two days in 2001, he donned
yellow after winning the prologue time-trial.

Even at 36, the AG2R team leader had shown his best form in
years heading into this Tour: He won the Dauphine Libere stage race
-- a key Tour tuneup -- in June, and stunningly won France's road
championship a week before the big event.

Five-time champion Bernard Hinault was the last Frenchman to win
the Tour, in 1985. Four years later, Laurent Fignon placed second
to Greg Lemond by a record-low 8 seconds. The last French podium
finish was Richard Virenque's second in 1997.

With seven-time Lance Armstrong retired in 2005, Moreau had been
among those looking to fill the void. A string of doping scandals
over the last year thinned the field of contenders and improved his
chances.

In his role as perennial French hope, Moreau had said he wasn't
going to give himself any undue pressure to win this year.

On Thursday, he tried to make the best of losing ground to
Rasmussen.

"It's not over. I was hurting in my hip, my morale took a
blow," Moreau said. "But three minutes -- it's limited. ... I'm
going to try to put myself together before the big mountain
stages."

The Tour heads into medium-sized mountains Friday for the 12th
stage, a 110.9-mile run from Montpellier to Castres, a stage likely
to favor breakaway riders.

Challengers like Moreau are looking to Saturday's time-trial in
Albi for a chance to make up ground against Rasmussen, who admits
he is a "pure climber" and doesn't fare well in races against the
clock.

Look for time-trial stars like Andreas Kloeden of Germany, an
Astana teammate of Vinokourov who is 3:50 behind the leader, to
make his mark.

Three days in the Pyrenees loom at the start of the third week
before the July 29 finish on the Champs-Elys Dees in Paris.

One former French star said Moreau's not likely to be on the
podium after Thursday's drab performance.

"For winning the Tour, his chances are nil," said Bernard
Thevenet, who won in 1975 and 1977. "All that we want is a French
winner ... it's not for this year. We'll wait some more."