SAINT-BRIEUC, France - With villagers calling out to him as he sped through the countryside, Alejandro Valverde kept his lead in the Tour de France yesterday and basked in the honor of wearing the yellow jersey.
The Spaniard held back as Norwegian sprint specialist Thor Hushovd won the second stage in a sprint in completing the 102-mile ride in Brittany from Auray to Saint-Brieuc.
"It was an incredible thing to spend today with the yellow jersey on my shoulders," Valverde said. "Every time that we passed through a village, people recognized me and shouted my name."
Valverde, one of the favorites in the three-week race, finished 12th and ruled out trying to win a stage that featured a tricky uphill finish.
Hushovd, who rides for the Credit Agricole team, won a Tour stage for the sixth time. He bolted from the pack with about 50 yards to go and finished in 3 hours 45 minutes 13 seconds.
"I knew this was a sprint that played to my strengths, but it was difficult with the wind and a little hill at the end," said Hushovd.
Team Columbia riders Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg and Gerald Ciolek of Germany were second and third. The top US finisher was George Hincapie, 23d.
Valverde, the Caisse d'Epargne team leader, is one second in front of Kirchen and Spanish sprint star Oscar Freire in a race that will end in Paris July 27. Valverde faces a big test in today's first time trial, a discipline that is not his strength.
The other main contenders kept Valverde in their sights. Australia's Cadel Evans trails the Spaniard by a second. Denis Menchov of Russia and Carlos Sastre of Spain are seven seconds back, as are Hincapie and fellow American Christian Vandevelde.
Riders battled intermittent rain in the trek across Brittany and carefully avoided crashes that often mar the flat, early stages.
"This was really a stage for the pure sprinters," said Valverde, who won Saturday's first stage in a sprint.
As the final dash loomed, Hushovd hugged the wheel of his lead man, teammate Mark Renshaw of Australia. With about 500 yards to go, he told him, "Don't panic!" Near the finish, Renshaw peeled away to let Hushovd cross alone.
Caisse d'Epargne rider Oscar Pereiro said it's possible his squad won't try to keep Valverde in the yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
"At the moment, this team is very, very strong, but the Tour is three weeks long and it's very hard," said Pereiro, who became the 2006 Tour winner after Floyd Landis was stripped of the title for doping.
Four teams (Lampre, Team CSC, Columbia, and Saunier Duval) took blood tests before the stage, and all 36 riders were cleared to race by the French Anti-Doping Agency.