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Live coverage of stage 2 of Paris-Nice, 200.5km from Vimory to Cérilly.
Stage two of Paris-Nice brings the peloton some 200.5km from Vimory to Cérilly. We're not far from Paris-Bourges country this afternoon and with no climbs on the menu today, the sprinters will expect to keep things together for a bunch finish.
The early outlook for said mass finish was more than promising, with the peloton set to ride into a block headwind for most of the day.
That didn't discourage Gatis Smukulis (Katusha), Mads Christensen (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Kris Boeckmans (Vacansoleil-DCM) from zipping up the road in the opening kilometre, and the trio stretched that lead out to four minutes at one point. But when Boeckmans dropped back, citing the stiff headwind and the lack of manpower up front - the break lost its impetus and they were reeled back in.
The statistics on letour.fr give us some indication of the conditions - the bunch covered just 32 kilometres in the opening hour of a racing, and a positively languid 26.7 kilometres in the second hour after the break was recaptured.
After 64km, however, Vacansoileil-DCM duo Romain Feillu and Thomas De Gendt threw caution to the, er, wind and went on the offensive. Maxime Bouet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) gave chase shortly afterwards and the bunch left them to it.
As we pick up the action with a shade over 100 kilometres still to race, the leading quartet of Feillu, De Gendt, Bouet and Astarloza have a lead of 4:05 over the peloton.
The overall standings this morning were as follows:
1 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ 4:51:01
2 Damien Gaudin (Fra) Team Europcar
3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:01
4 Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
5 Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale Pro Cycling
6 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Merida 0:00:02
7 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Blanco Pro Cycling Team
8 Geoffrey Soupe (Fra) FDJ
9 Peter Velits (Svk) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:03
10 Tony Gallopin (Fra) RadioShack Leopard
Lazy hacks such as this one have repeatedly reached for the expression "French cycling renaissance" in recent years, like a sprinter reaching for his team car in the mountains, so I'll be careful not to trot out the cliché here. But the home press are certainly pleased to see three French riders occupy the top three placings on general classification.
There hasn't been a French winner of Paris-Nice since Laurent Jalabert's third and final victory all the way back in 1997, in what was, one hopes, a very different era.
One man hoping to end the French drought this year is the in-form Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). He laid down a significant marker by coming within a whisker of winning the prologue. Or, as Wilfried Peeters would put it, within a vent-covering sticker of winning the prologue.
The Omega Pharma-QuickStep directeur sportif has questioned prologue winner Damien Gaudin's material, and more specifically, the black sticker on the front of his helmet.
After three hours of racing, the peloton had averaged 30.6kph, and there hasn't been any dramatic injection of pace since. The four escapees have gone through the midway point of the stage at Villepan with a four-minute buffer over the peloton
A couple of abandons to report too, both resulting from the crashes that marred yesterday's stage. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Astana) was a non-starter after getting his knee stitched up following his crash on stage one, while a wrist injury has forced Garmin-Sharp's Jacob Rathe to pull out.
FDJ are grouped at the front of the peloton but they are more than happy to keep the break tagged at four minutes for now.
Meanwhile, Roman Feillu can even share a joke with the cameraman as he comes through to take his turn on the front, grinding into the wind.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is keeping a watchful eye on proceedings near the front end of the peloton. The Belgian was enduring a torrid time of it at the same point twelve months ago, but he seems in a much better place this time around. The acid test will come at the spring classics, of course, but relative to this week last year - when he was dropped by his BMC squad in the team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico - Gilbert is cutting a far more relaxed figure.
There's also a strong delegation from Blanco Pro Cycling placed near the front end of the peloton. The Dutch squad has three riders with serious designs on the general classification - Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk and youngster Wilco Kelderman. Eager to score WorldTour points and attract a sponsor to ensure its survival beyond the end of this year, the team has placed greater emphasis on getting some early results this year. Indeed, the same trio of Gesink, Kruijiswijk and Kelderman will also form the spine of Blanco's Giro d'Italia team.
Rory Sutherland (Saxo-Tinkoff) gets bumped off his bike at the rear of the peloton, but the Australian is back on board immediately and has already latched back onto the bunch again.
The past couple of kilometres have seen a slight increase in the urgency of the peloton, and the break's margin has dropped quite suddenly to a shade under two minutes.
As if the wind weren't enough to deal with, it is now beginning to rain steadily and the roads are looking a little greasy.
Yann Huguet (Argos-Shimano) takes a tumble at the rear of the peloton and brings Kanstantin Siutsou (Sky) down with him. Siutsou is quickly back on his feet, while Huguet follows shortly afterwards.
Almost immediately afterwards comes another crash involving a Sky rider. Ian Boswell is the man who goes down, while former yellow jersey Damien Gaudin (Europcar) is also a faller.
Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) was also a faller in the Gaudin-Boswell crash and the word reaching us is that Pichot has abandoned.
Gaudin himself is in a group some 1:30 behind the peloton, along with teammate Jerome Cousin and Geoffrey Soupe (FDJ). Up front, meanwhile, the peloton has closed to within 1:05 of the escapees.
There has been a palpable infusion of urgency at the front end of the peloton in the past ten kilometres, with riders trying to force their way to the front in a bid to avoid crashes. The result is that the gap to the break has now dropped to under a minute.
Yoann Offredo (FDJ) was very active on the front end of the peloton in the finale yesterday, and he has been prominent again today in the defence of his teammate Bouhanni's interests. Offredo, of course, missed the classics last year as he was serving a one-year suspension for violating the whereabouts system. The Frenchman is in search of lost time on the cobbles this year, and he showed flashes of his capabilities at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before the winning break drifted clear.
Thomas De Gendt and company are still battling at the head of the race. The Belgian is the best-placed of the quartet on general classification and he puts in a big turn on the front to try and breathe some life into the move. The gap is currently 1:05.
Damien Gaudin has succeeded in latching back onto the rear of the peloton. The big Frenchman has cuts and scrapes down the lefthand side of his body after that tumble 10 kilometres ago.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale) often seems about as comfortable in the peloton on flat stages as he does while giving evidence at the Puerto trial, but the Italian is managing to stay close to the front here.
Indeed, a phalanx of Cannondale riders are very visible just a couple of rows back from the front, keeping Elia Viviani out of the wind. Viviani was probably the quickest over the final 100 metres yesterday but he had left himself with too much to do before then, and could only manage third behind Bouhanni and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida).
Disaster for Nacer Bouhanni. The maillot jaune has crashed and landed on his face. The Frenchman is sitting up on the side of the road and being treated, but it looks as though his race might be over.
Bouhanni was the only faller - he was well-placed at the front of the peloton but went too quickly into a sharp left-hand bend and slid off. He struck his face off the road as he fell, and is bleeding from the mouth and nose.
Sadly, Nacer Bouhanni's race is over. The Frenchman is lifted on to a stretcher, although thankfully he is conscious, alert and sitting up.
It's always a shame to see the yellow jersey forced out of a race, and the sense of regret is all the greater when a young rider enjoying a fine run of form has his progress interrupted. Bouhanni's tub-thumping win yesterday was his second of the campaign after a fine victory on the final stage of the Tour of Oman, and he would surely have fancied his chances in another bunch sprint today. Here's hoping the man from Épinal is back in action soon.
The show goes on without the unfortunate Bouhanni, and the peloton is beginning to stalk the break in earnest as we approach the final 50 kilometres. 1:05 the gap.
Up front, the four escapees are continuing to collaborate smoothly, or at least, as smoothly as the windswept conditions allow.
Argos-Shimano step up to the plate in the main peloton. Their man Marcel Kittel is the favourite for the stage win today and is smarting after missing out on yesterday's sprint finish to boot. The German punctured in the finale and finished in the second group.
While setting up Kittel for stage victory is Argos-Shimano's most immediate aim at Paris-Nice, the Race to the Sun also provides the Dutch squad with the chance to blood some young talent. Neo-pro Warren Barguil won the Tour de l'Avenir last year and lines up for his first-ever WorldTour race at Paris-Nice. The Frenchman told Cyclingnews that the race is purely a learning experience, at least for this year.
Gruppo compatto. Argos-Shimano's injection of pace has put a swift end to the break's defiance. Once the gap comes down to 15 seconds, the quartet sit up and with 44km to go, the bunch is back together.
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) was left behind when the peloton split in the finale yesterday but the Belgian champion looks quite comfortable today, and he is sitting four wheels back from the front of the peloton.
Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) drops back to stock up on bidons as the peloton cruises through the tree-lined roads beyond Le Pondy. The wind is still in their faces at the moment, but there could be fireworks with the changes of direction on the 18km-long finishing circuit at Cérilly, where positioning will be key.
Boonen himself is now sitting on the front and setting the pace, casually resting his forearms on his handlebars as he does so. The Tour of Flanders is just over three weeks away and Boonen is looking to get the best work-out he can for De Ronde at Paris-Nice.
Incidentally, part of Sky's rationale for sending its classics team to train in the seclusion of Mount Teide rather than ride Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico was precisely to avoid stages like today, which has been run off at a considerably slower pace than they feel to be conducive to preparing for the classics.
36km to go. Block headwind. Tom Boonen and Argos-Shimano on the front. It's really not surprising that nobody has tried to attack since the break was caught - not even Fabio Roscioli or Jacky Durand would have tried to defy those odds.
Orica-GreenEdge are also contributing some manpower towards managing the front end of the peloton, while David Millar leads an advance party from Garmin-Sharp who are trying to keep Andrew Talansky sheltered and out of trouble.
The road narrows suddenly at Ainay-le-Chateau but thankfully the peloton is safely through without any mishap. Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi), an unexpected member of the early break yesterday, is sitting at the very rear of the bunch.
More and more teams are trying to marshal their leaders towards the front. There will be a sharp change in direction with 18km to go that will bring the peloton from a headwind to a tailwind, and it will be crucial to be at the front there.
With 12.5km to go, another turn will bring the race into a brief sidewind section, and there could well be fireworks there.
27 kilometres to go and the teams of the sprinters and GC contenders alike continue to shepherd their leaders towards the front of the bunch.
Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is currently sitting at the back of the bunch but the Belarus champion ought to be in the mix come the finishing straight. He had a brace of second places at the Tour of Qatar but failed to make an impact in the sprint in Nemours yesterday, coming home in 15th.
As things stand, Damien Gaudin (Europcar) leads the classement virtuel but with bonus seconds on offer at the second intermediate sprint with 18km to go, as well as at the finish, he is far from assured of another spell in yellow.
Elia Viviani, for instance, is just one second behind Gaudin, and will fancy his chances of picking up bonus seconds.
The peloton will cross the finish line for the first time in 4 kilometres, and that is where the second intermediate sprint will be contested.
It's an uphill sprint finish today, and coming at the end of a 4km-long straight, it's certainly not the easiest effort to judge. The contenders for honours today will be glad to have an impromptu reconnaissance when they come through for the intermediate sprint.
One kilometre to go to the intermediate sprint. Cannondale are looking to set up Viviani, while Blanco are also well-placed.
Lucas Sebastien Haedo (Cannondale) leads out Viviani and even though though Sylvain Chavanel was parked on his rear wheel, the Italian took the sprint and the three bonus seconds with considerable ease.
1.Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale
2.Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
3.Ruben Perez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
The provisional standings now see Viviani in the overall lead, one second clear of Chavanel, but there are, of course, ten seconds on offer to the winner at the finish.
With the wind at their backs after the intermediate sprint, Omega Pharma-QuickStep hit the front with determination. Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh, Jerome Pineau and Sylvain Chavanel set the pace and string out the peloton.
It will interesting to see if they can force an echelon when the road swings left in a little over a kilometre's time. Boonen is out of the saddle and forcing the pace at the front.
Into the crosswind section for the Omega Pharma-QuickStep-led peloton but the tree cover means that it might prove difficult to force a split.
Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) is well-placed near the front. The Italian will have liked what he saw of the uphill finishing straight the first time around.
Tom Boonen has put in a couple of fierce efforts at the front as Omega Pharma-QuickStep continue to force the issue. The green jersey Chavanel sits in the wheels and is pedalling with considerable fluidity.
IAM Cycling are trying to beat a path for Heinrich Haussler at the front of the bunch, while Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is also moving up. Omega Pharma's pace-setting hasn't split the bunch but it has certainly stretched things somewhat.
In 500 metres' time, the bunch will swing back into a headwind as it rejoins the original route. Omega Pharma-QuickStep continue to lead.
The peloton is safely around the sharp left-hand bend and immediately afterwards, Yoann Offredo takes a flyer up the right-hand side of the road. The Frenchman takes a look back hoping for reinforcements, but they don't come and he is quickly swept back up.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) punctures out of contention, while Ivan Basso hits the front in support of Viviani.
Cannondale have taken heart from Viviani's intermediate sprint win, and their lime green jerseys are now massed on the front of the peloton. Tom Boonen's job is done, meanwhile, and he melts back into the pack.
Lampre-Merida are also trying to piece together a train for Alessandro Petacchi. Two years ago, the veteran enjoyed considerable success on uphill sprint finishes, crediting training on Mount Etna for his advance in that field.
Stefan Denifl (IAM) tries to steal off the front but he is quickly brought to heel.
The finish line is already visible from this point, and Argos-Shimano are trying to organise things for Marcel Kittel.
No one team has succeeded in grabbing a hold of this lead-out just yet, but the block headwind means that any attacks would seem doomed to failure regardless.
Baden Cooke hits the front for Orica-GreenEdge, who are competing with the Argos-Shimano train.
Approaching the red kite, it's Garmin-Sharp's Fabian Wegman at the front of the bunch.
Yoann Offredo takes over inside the final 1,000 metres and brings Tom Veelers off the front.
Offredo and Veelers are brought back, but it looks set to be a chaotic finish.
Lampre take over 500 metres out in a bid to set things up for Petacchi...
As the road rears up towards the finish line, however, Kittel emerges on the left-hand side of the road and hits the front with confidence.
Marcel Kittel wins the stage, while Elia Viviani takes second ahead of Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEdge) and Borut Bozic (Astana).
That was a powerful sprint from Kittel, who had time to raise his arms in celebration as he crossed the line. Viviani did well to finish second and secure the yellow jersey, but he never seriously threatened to overhaul the flying Kittel.
1 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano
2 Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale Pro Cycling
3 Leigh Howard (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
4 Borut Bozic (Slo) Astana Pro Team
5 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
6 Gianni Meersman (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quick Step
7 Romain Feillu (Fra) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
8 Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Belisol
9 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team
10 Tony Gallopin (Fra) RadioShack Leopard
Kittel timed his effort well there. His Argos-Shimano train disintegrated under the impetus of Offredo's acceleration with 800 metres to go, but Kittel had the sangfroid to sit in behind Romain Feillu, and leave his effort as late as possible. Once he ripped to the front with 200 metres to go, however, the result was never in doubt.
Elia Viviani ought to have a 7-second lead over Sylvain Chavanel thanks to picking up another six seconds for finishing second. In any case, the Italian will certainly wear the yellow jersey tomorrow.
1 Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale Pro Cycling 10:33:11
2 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:07
3 Damien Gaudin (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:08
1Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale
2Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep0:00:07
3Damien Gaudin (Fra) Europcar0:00:08
4Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM0:00:09
5Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Merida0:00:10
6Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Blanco Pro Cycling
7Geoffrey Soupe (Fra) FDJ
8Peter Velits (Svk) Omega Pharma-QuickStep0:00:11
9Tony Gallopin (Fra) RadioShack Leopard
10Borut Bozic (Slo) Astana
Thanks for joining us for today's coverage of Paris-Nice on Cyclingnews. For full results, a report and pictures, check back here. We'll be back for more tomorrow, when Cyclingnews will also carry live text coverage of the opening stage of Tirreno-Adriatico.