http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/...853117050.html

Robbie McEwen's bid to win the Tour de France's green jersey for a second year running is going right down to the wire, according to the rider who has been hand-picked to boost the 31-year-old Queenslander's chances.

McEwen, who won Australia's first jersey from the Tour when he ended the six-year reign of Germany's Erik Zabel in 2002, still sits eight points behind compatriot and rival Baden Cooke with five stages still to race.

Cooke, 24, who rides for the Fdjeux.com team, won his first stage on the Tour after just three days of riding to boost his team's stock after Brad McGee had won the prologue.

But after the earlier part of the Tour when, at one point, three Australian riders wore three of the race's four jerseys, the camaraderie between the Aussies is not so boisterous.

And according to Nick Gates, McEwen's Lotto teammate, the fight is far from over.


"It is for the green jersey," Gates told AFP when asked if it would be a tight race in the points competition in the next few days.

"It's been like that for the last couple of years and it's gonna be like that again.

"But you can't start putting too much pressure on anybody, you've just got to see what happens. Tomorrow's a survival day but you've also got to be careful that Robbie stays near his rivals, he can't let Cookie get any points.

"If he (Cooke) goes in a group in front and comes at the finish and there's some points up for grabs Robbie will go further behind.

"He can not let Cookie beat him once more. If he does the green will be gone, so, he has to beat him at every sprint now till the finish."

Gates came into the race with little ambition of his own, but with an important brief to help McEwen when it comes to protecting him from the wind and fetching the necessary refreshments during the race.

It doesn't sound very glorifying, but such is the reality of the world's toughest bike race where only a handful of riders are realistically challenging for the honours.

And Gates admits he could have done a better job had he not spent so much time trying to win his place on Lotto's Tour team by riding the Tour of Italy then the Tour if Switzerland.

"The Tour is totally different from the Giro or the Tour of Switzerland, but I think that on top of what I've already done, I'm at my end. I feel physically empty," Gates added as he went through the pleasure, and pain, of his nightly massage.

"So there's nothing I can do at the moment, just try and finish," added Gates who said he had been given snippets of advice on what to expect on his tour debut.