By Jean-François Quénet in Vichy
Sylvain Chavanel is a man of words. After Paris-Nice's inaugural time trial, he warned that he would try something before the mountain stage of Lure on Friday. He didn't wait long to deliver on his promise – stage three – although his triumph was largely unexpected.
With 40 kilometres to go until the finish in Vichy, a four-kilometre false-flat downhill section with a tailwind didn't seem to favour an escape group. Without the usual crosswinds used by the strong teams to create echelons, Rabobank surprised the rest of the field by making the move, which Chavanel followed.
"I saw the Rabobank riders gathering in the front," the Frenchman explained. "I took my jacket off – I was ready for the war." Savouring the moment, Chavanel explained, "This is the kind of racing I like the most, when there are riders everywhere on the road because it's hard and challenging." Indeed it was a fabulous stage finale to watch, given the terrible conditions.
They were only seven riders competing for the stage win in the finale, and Chavanel was up against it "Against three Rabobank riders (Juan Antonio Flecha, Sebastian Langeveld and Juan Manuel Garate), it wasn't an easy task. In a small group, I'm quite fast but I couldn't win by myself. Kevin (Seeldrayers) did a fantastic job. It brought me back onto Flecha's colleague [Langeveld, who had attacked in the last kilometre]."
"Then it was another Flecha-Chavanel duel," the Quick Step rider added, referring to the last 10 kilometres of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne when he rode hard behind the Spaniard at the service of eventual winner and teammate, Tom Boonen.
It's clear that Chavanel has already learned good cycling lessons in Belgium. "Tactically, I've done well today. I'm proud of myself." He has every right to appreciate his achievements in testing conditions. "I'm not surprised there are some significant gaps because we rode so fast in the front." Contador is now 1:03 behind on general classification and Paris-Nice is traditionally a race where a few seconds separate the contenders – there were only three last year between Davide Rebellin and Rinaldo Nocentini.
"It's much better to be ahead than behind after three stages. I'd better not dream about the Montagne de Lure; that's not the place for beating Contador, and it's why I wanted to take the advantage today.
"On a climb like that, with a gradient between five and 10 percent, I know I can do something. I've already come fifth at the Mont Ventoux in the past. I hope I won't lose time like last year when I had the yellow jersey. I'm in a better shape than last year. My morale is huge right now.
"It was my first goal to win a stage, the second one is to do well on general classification – half of it is achieved already. For the coming stages, we have a team of climbers. It's a really nice team."
The 22-year-old Seeldrayers, a pure climber in the making, should add some fuel to the fire of Chavanel's general classification hopes. The combination of the two should make for interesting racing on Friday.