By Hedwig Kröner in Sisteron
The overall outcome of this year's Paris-Nice will be decided in the last two stages, with several riders still in contention for the final honours on the Promenade des Anglais in the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice. A new star on the horizon, 21 year-old Dutchman Robert Gesink led the general classification on Friday evening, but is closely followed by two experienced Italians, Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin and AG2R's Rinaldo Nocentini. Both riders were regarded as pre-race favourites, with 'Tin-Tin' Rebellin victorious in the Tour du Haut Var and Nocentini coming second, whereas the young Rabobank rider emerged rather unexpectedly.
Rebellin was happy that the dreaded Mont Ventoux did not put an end to his GC goals before the final stages to the Cote d'Azur. "Yesterday was a hard stage for me, with the final ascent being really difficult," he told Cyclingnews at the start of stage five in Provence's Althen-des-Paluds. "I passed the climb better than I had expected, so I'm happy. My form is good, but Evans and Gesink were also impressive!"
The Italian Classics specialist was full of praise for the Rabobank youngster, but also reckoned that there still were a few more riders to watch out for the top GC placings. "Gesink is very strong, but so are other riders that sit at 30 or 40 seconds [meaning Nocentini and Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto) -ed.]. It's far from over: the weekend is going to be decisive," he added, hoping that his ill-fated squad will be up to the challenge. Several of his Gerolsteiner team-mates were injured in crashes during the first stages of the race, and are still suffering. Carlo Westphal and Tom Stamsnijder abandoned the race today.
The battle between him and his fellow countryman Nocentini seems open, as the AG2R rider also has the victory in sight. "With Rebellin only three seconds ahead of me, I'm going to try for second place for sure!," the likeable Italian said to Cyclingnews in his best French. "And Gesink is only at 35 seconds, that's not very far away, either. So it won't be easy [to win the race], but it's not impossible."
Nocentini also rated Gesink as a "great climber, but for ascents more like yesterday: long climbs like the Mont Ventoux. I might be a little better than him in the shorter hills that we still have in front of us this weekend. My abilities are similar to Rebellin's – the shorter climbs suit us better." One advantage Rebellin might have in the upcoming stages is that of parcours experience, as Nocentini only raced Paris-Nice once, in his second year as a pro, eight years ago. Since then, he preferred Tirreno-Adriatico to the 'race to the sun'. "But they told me the last stage to Nice is good for me, so we'll see."
His team, AG2R-La Mondiale, was also unlucky in the first part of the race, with several of his team-mates crashing. Still, Nocentini felt very-well supported. "I'm very happy with my team – they all ride for me and do a great job. It was important in the first stages with all the wind, and still is now."
Asked to rate his form compared to Rebellin's, Nocentini diplomatically concluded, "I think we are on the same level at the moment. Three seconds is not much...."