Runner-up Robert Gesink takes an option on final win
Cadel Evans, one of the favorites for the 2008 Tour de France, won the first big race of the year for the climbers as the claimed the Mont Ventoux at the station of Mont Serein located five kilometers before the top of the "giant of Provence". This confirms the good form already shown by the Australian when he won the mountain stage of the Ruta del Sol, his first race of the year in February.
"It's good to win but my goal was to put Popovych in the best possible position in the overall standings," Evans said. "My job is done." However, the lead of the race went to young Dutchman Robert Gesink who did most of the work uphill and created a 32 second gap over Davide Rebellin, who made it clear prior to Paris-Nice that the Mont Ventoux was too hard for him. The Italian did well to limit the damage, and actually passed Popovych in the final kilometre. Evans is confident his team-mate can finish well in the overall, and warned, "Popovych still has a chance of doing a very, very good Paris-Nice."
Gesink, the winner of the queen stage of the Tour of California had already shown his climbing abilities this year and wanted another stage win, but couldn't quite pull it off. He was rewarded with the leader's jersey, however. "This is what I was hoping for and my team worked a lot to get it," Gesink explained. "I felt really good today. The long climbs suit me because that's where I can keep the pace hard. When Popovych dropped off, I just went flat out till the finish. Evans didn't let me win the stage. That's cycling. I understand. I hope to come back here and win the stage up to the Mont Ventoux in some race one day. For now, I'm really happy to have this jersey. I have a very strong team and I hope to keep the lead in the next few days."
The main disappointment came from runner-up Luis-Leon Sanchez who looked in perfect position before the final battle, but showed some limits uphill in those special circumstances. So did the race leader Sylvain Chavanel.
The Frenchman held the yellow jersey for just one day. He had announced ambitious intentions of winning Paris-Nice overall, but he blew with seven kilometers to go. He didn't look too devastated at the end. "I'm mostly disappointed for my team-mates who have worked a lot for me," Chavanel commented. "The Mont Ventoux is difficult. We're only in March and I don't have my form of the Tour de France yet. The guys in front of me are the ones who can win in Nice. I haven't said my last word. I'll be noticed in this race again."
Gesink, 22, clearly has a promising career ahead of him. Already a stage winner at the Tour of California this year, he showed how strong he can be at the Pro Tour level last season when he came 2nd in the Tour of Poland, 5th in the Tour of Germany, 9th in the Flèche Wallonne and 15th in the Tour of Lombardy. He is a real climber who should enjoy the Tanneron on Saturday and the col d'Èze, and is now the hot favorite for the final win in Nice.
How it unfolded
At km 11, four men went away: Jens Voigt (CSC), Niki Tersptra (Milram), Aleksandr Kuchinsky (Liquigas) and Bernhard Eisel (High Road). There was no reaction at the head of the peloton where the Cofidis team of race leader Sylvain Chavanel took the responsibility for setting the pace.
At km 81, the maximum lead was reached for the four escapees of 7'15. Rabobank came to the front of the bunch to help Cofidis in the chase, making no doubt about the ambitions of Robert Gesink on the Mont Ventoux.
At the bottom of the Mont Ventoux, Voigt went solo in the front. The Gerolsteiner team-mates of Davide Rebellin were the most active in making the race hard behind the aggressive German veteran. Quick Step also looked to have big potential as a team around Juan Manuel Garate.
Chavanel got dropped 7km before the top of the climb, and his team-mate Maxime Monfort waited for him. Approaching the 5km to go mark, Gesink surged in the front of the chasing group. The strongest climbers of the day appeared on his wheel: Cadel Evans, Yaroslav Popovych, Davide Rebellin and Fränk Schleck. They caught Voigt within 4km to go.
3.2km before the top, Gesink accelerated. Only Evans was able to follow him. Popovych was 30 seconds behind at the 2km to go mark. Gesink passed first at the KOM and Evans out-sprinted him on the finish line.
Gesink becomes the new leader of Paris-Nice with a 32 seconds advantage over Rebellin.