BLOIS, France — In the town where Joan of Arc plotted her attack on the English at Orleans, Mario Cipollini of Italy won the fastest stage in the history of the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Coming off a stone bridge spanning the Loire River, the Italian surged past Germany's Erik Zabel in a photo finish to win the 121-mile fourth stage of cycling's showcase race.
A favorable tailwind, cool weather, a relatively straight course and wide, flat roads all contributed to the record average speed of 31.290 mph, breaking the 1993 mark of 30.707 mph.
Australia's Stuart O'Grady finished third, followed by Tom Steels, the Belgian who won the two previous stages. Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu was fifth but kept the leader's yellow jersey he captured Monday.
O'Grady moved up to second place overall, 16 seconds behind. Steels, who wants to be leading when the race nears Belgium later in the week, was third.
As in Tuesday's third stage, two riders broke from the pack early and held a long lead. Gianpaolo Mondini of Italy and Anthony Morin of France survived an early breakaway by 10 riders. They built a lead of more than six minutes over 62 miles before the pack started gaining late in the race.
The final sprint went down to a photo finish, and Zabel was deprived of a stage win on his 29th birthday.
In winning in 3 hours 51 minutes 45 seconds, Cipollini, 32, captured his ninth Tour de France stage victory, and his first this year.
"It was the perfect sprint," he said.
Tour de France
A look at Wednesday's fourth stage:
* Stage: A 121-mile ride from Laval in western France to Blois in the Loire Valley.
* Stage winner: Italy's Mario Cipollini won in record time of 31.290 mph for a flat stage. The previous record, set in 1993, was 30.707 mph.
* Others: Germany's Erik Zabel was second and Australia's Stuart O'Grady third. They finished in the same positions Tuesday. Belgium's Tom Steels, winner of the second and third stages, placed fourth.
* Overall: Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu, who finished fifth Wednesday, retained the leader's yellow jersey for the third day in a row. O'Grady, 16 seconds behind, moved into second place, and Steels fell to third. Lance Armstrong was fourth.
* Next stage: Today, Bonneval to Amiens, 145 miles.