Rabobank's Robert Gesink made it one day closer to becoming the first Dutch rider since Michael Boogerd to win Paris-Nice on Friday, surviving a wickedly fast 172.5 kilometre stage from Althen-des-Paluds to Sisteron. With the help of his team, which was put under pressure by the 17-man breakaway that began to nibble into his lead when the gap crested three minutes, the 21 year-old phenom maintained the yellow jersey and his 32-second lead in the overall standings.
Stage winner Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), down 4'07" on Gesink at the start, was the best placed rider in the break, and drove the pace to move himself up on the general classification. But in the end, the Rabobank riders were given assistance from the Gerolsteiner team of Davide Rebellin, who lies second overall, to control the leaders, and there was little change to the standings with the exception of Barredo's rise to to sixth.
"My first day in yellow was a nice one," the young Dutchman explained. "But it hurt a lot! The pace was high all the time. We didn't expect it would be so high. This group away wasn't the ideal scenario for us. I've been worried but luckily it went well at the end."
Gesink's team manager Erik Dekker expressed his confidence in his young rider's ability to secure the overall on the team's website, rabobank.nl. "It is harder for the competition to take the yellow away from Robert than it is for us to defend his yellow," said Dekker, who has been consistently impressed by the abilities of the second year pro. "It is getting harder and harder to be surprised by what he shows us."
While on the screen the Rabobank team seemed to struggle to control the breakaway, Dekker insisted that they were never in danger. "The guys were not bored," he joked. "It looked tense, but the signals I got reassured me. They said they were all right, that they had things under control But it was intense though, full throttle from start to finish."
Gesink has been the revelation of the season as best young rider in California and the now with the yellow jersey in Paris-Nice. A pure climber who bears a haunting physical resemblance to his former team-mate Michael Rasmussen, Gesink also shares Rasmussen's perfectionism when it comes to weight savings. Before the ascent to the ski station on the Mont Ventoux, he changed bikes to a lightweight machine "with light, but vulnerable, tires, a carbon seat that you cannot sit on for a very long time, cables cut down to the bare minimum, and a very short chain."
Should Gesink stroll into Nice on Sunday with the yellow jersey secured, he will surely be one of the youngest champions of the 75 year-old race. He would join such legends as his compatriot Joop Zoetemelk, Miguel Indurain, Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly in the list of winners.