By Hedwig Kröner
Stage three of this year's Paris-Nice yesterday was turbulent. Laid out on rather hilly terrain towards the finish, with one serious climb of 10 kilometres at 6.5 percent gradient, everybody knew that the overall contenders would take their first chances today. American Floyd Landis was able to shake the GC tree to put himself in first position, but many riders fell down its trunk like apples - and that was a surprise.
"It is surprising to me that I put most of the riders more than one minute down," said Landis at the finish in Saint-Etienne yesterday. "Actually I though that the climb was a little too short to be making that much of a difference." Bobby Julich, last year's overall winner, lost 8.44 minutes and is therefore out of the game. But CSC, even though reduced to six riders after the loss of Christian Vande Velde and Michael Blaudzun, still has another joker up its sleeve: Luxembourg champion Fränk Schleck (see interview), who seems to start this season just how he finished the last one - very close to victory.
"I already thought that Julich wasn't going to be well enough to win the race for the second time in a row, but with Fränk we have another asset," Bjarne Riis told the Telegraaf, adding that Paris-Nice hadn't been a major motive for the Danish team from the start. "We're riding this race and of course, if we can, we want to win. But I can't deny that there is only on event that really matters to us this year, and that is the Tour."
Landis' attack on the Col de Croix de Chaubouret was very impressive, but like Team CSC, Phonak has only six riders left in the race, too, as Robert Hunter and Aurélien Clerc had to abandon due to illness. And there are still about twelve riders who could overturn the overall classification. "I've done a nice cut today, and therefore stand a good chance of winning Paris-Nice," said the Phonak leader. "But this is a course on which crazy things can happen all the time. And because there are so many riders within two minutes, it will be hard to control the race."
Nevertheless, motivation to win the race will be abundant as John Lelangue's outfit is currently in a bid to secure next year's main sponsor, with Barclays Global Investors' trade funds iShares a possible candidate, currently assessing the PR power of cycling. "We have to score," said Dutch teammate Koos Moerenhout. "The management is under pressure to find a new main sponsor, which could be iShares. If we can help the process by getting good results, we're not backing down."
Phonak's motivation to win also caught Dutchman Erik Dekker by surprise. "I was plain stupid," the Rabobank rider said about the decisive part of yesterday's stage. "I kept looking at Bobby Julich, but then I understood that he wasn't well enough to keep up with the best. So by the time I got back to concentrate on the others, I could have been closer to them. And then I cramped on the last two kilometres." Dekker the older is now 1.42 minutes off the yellow jersey, but, once again, Rabobank is another team with only six men left: Graeme Brown suffered a cold and joined teammate Gerben Löwik, who abandoned on stage two.
The weather god plays with his pawns
The toll France's cold weather has been taking on the international peloton so far is great: many riders had to quit due to illness or crashes caused by chilly temperatures, rain and snow. Among those not yet cited are Bradley Mc Gee (Française des Jeux), Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile Team), Mauro Santambrogio (Lampre-Fondital) and Thomas Ziegler (T-Mobile Team). In stage two, Cofidis rider Ivan Ramiro Parra did not make the time limit, suffering from hypoglycemia due to the cold.
"I was in a good position in the race when I suddenly had a hunger knock," the Colombian rider said. "It was probably due to the intense chill, which made my body consume more energy than normally - I felt totally empty and powerless." Parra eventually finished, but arrived in Belleville seven minutes outside the time cut.
Fortunately, France's South is living up to its promises as the weather in today's stage four finish town Rasteau is much friendlier: up to 17° Celsius are predicted for Thursday, but there is also a risk of showers in late afternoon.
Cyclingnews will cover the final four stages of Paris-Nice live, beginning at 14:30 local time (CET)/08:30 (USA East)/05:30 (USA West)/00:30 (Australia East).