By Jean-François Quénet in Fayence
Luis León Sánchez has created a huge surprise by taking the yellow jersey at Paris-Nice from the shoulders of Alberto Contador with a brilliant 16-kilometre solo effort at the end of Saturday's stage seven from Manosque to Fayence. But the Spaniard had mixed emotions about taking over the lead from his compatriot and long-time friend.
"I never hoped to do that," the Caisse d'Epargne rider said. It is the second time he has won in a battle with Contador at Paris-Nice. In 2007, on the penultimate stage to Cannes, Caisse d'Epargne's Sánchez and Contador (then riding for Discovery Channel) joined forces in an attempt to dethrone Italian Davide Rebellin, who held the race lead.
On the final flat section leading to the finish alongside the Mediterranean sea, Sánchez was directed to attack by his directeur sportif and think only of the stage win. Contador was left to be picked up by the peloton while Sánchez collected the stage win glory, and had to wait until the next day to storm away from Rebellin into Nice and seize the final overall classification.
"There was no problem between Alberto and myself after that," Sánchez clarified. "We spoke that night and we had another chat in August. Our girlfriends also speak to each other regularly. We have spent five years together in the same team and now we have parted ways, but we've remained good friends."
Both Contador and Sánchez started their pro career under the colors of ONCE in 2003. They rode together with Liberty Seguros. Probably their best combined effort was for winning the queen stage of the Tour Down Under in 2005. It was Contador's come back race following his brain surgery after the crash in the 2004 Tour of Asturias. They both arrived hand in hand in Willunga. Contador claimed the stage win and Sánchez took the overall classification.
They parted ways after the dismissal of the first Astana team following Manolo Saiz's arrest in the Operación Puerto. "Contador went to a team where there was a gap to be filled up after the Lance Armstrong era," Sánchez told Cyclingnews. "At Discovery Channel, they have pushed him to become a great rider and a Tour de France winner straight away. I am with people who have a different philosophy. This is the former Banesto team of Miguel Indurain. The directors keep telling me I have to work hard before getting results on a long term."
Indurain won Paris-Nice at the age of 25. Sánchez is 25 now. Indurain won his first Tour de France at the age of 27. Nobody at Caisse d'Epargne believes it will be too late for Sánchez to win the Tour de France in 2011, should they have to wait for two more years. Sánchez definitely has the Indurain format.
"I cannot say Paris-Nice is won until I cross the finishing line," he said in Fayence. He knows what to expect because he won that exact same stage last year. "I'm not afraid of anybody and I'm very confident in my team. If I get only half of the luck I had today, I should be able to win Paris-Nice and this is the race I've wanted to win in the past three years. It was always my main goal for the first part of the season."