By Jeff Quenet
The 184.5 km first stage of Paris - Nice was shortened to just 93.5km, after driving rain and strong winds forced the organisers to relocate the start. Initially they rescheduled the race to start in Sancerre, after the category three côte de Venoize which would have made the stage less than 80 kilometres. Ultimately they decided to launch the day's stage from the feedzone town, La Chapelotte, shortening the day from 184.5 kilometres to just 93.5 kilometres, but making it possible to allocate the king of the mountain price with only one climb situated after 15km of racing. Euskaltel's Dionisio Galparsoro came over the top first and took the polka dot jersey.
The wet and windy conditions were perfectly suited to the strong Belgian Gert Steegmans and his Quick Step team, who showed that they were the strongest on the day. Steegmans began the sprint from a relatively long way out and with 50 meters to go, he was fading, fully expecting Hushovd to pass him, but he looked back and realized the size of the gap between him and the others. "It was a nice feeling," he said. "There is no more pressure on my shoulders in Paris-Nice since Tom Boonen has decided to race Tirreno-Adriatico instead, but there's always a little bit of pressure at Quick Step because the team wants to win as many races as possible."
As a winner of stage two of the 2007 Tour de France to Ghent, Steegmans is known as a specialist for uphill bunch sprint finishes. He showed it once again by winning the stage into Nevers ahead of Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) and overnight leader Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole). The shortened stage was contested at very high speeds after Steegmans' team-mates from Quick Step decided to put the hammer down in the cross wind.
Under the rain, the Belgian squad looked as comfortable as if it was racing in its own backyard, unlike the diminutive Spaniards from Euskaltel who were daunted by the high winds. "Kevin Hulsmans and myself, we looked at them and we laughed, they were scared," Steegmans testified. But he understood the situation of climbers who aren't used to this kind of racing. "I have the same feeling when I look at the Mont Ventoux, I'm scared as well," the Belgian said.