Rebellin takes over from Gesink thanks to downhill
"What goes up must come down" was the phrase of the day after all the good work done by Robert Gesink up the Mont Ventoux on Thursday was ruined on the descent from the col de Tanneron. An acceleration at the top of the final climb dropped the young Dutch yellow jersey, and on the treacherous descent the Rabobank rider lost contact with Italians Davide Rebellin and Rinaldo Nocentini, who pulled themselves into first and second overall.
The Ventoux and the Tanneron have also given Sylvain Chavanel completely opposite feelings: the Frenchman lost the yellow jersey and any chance to win Paris-Nice on Thursday, but got his revenge in Cannes with a spectacular stage win. Known for his tactical mistakes, the Cofidis rider finally rode smart. He surprised his breakaway companions in the final kilometer of the stage, taking the second win of his ninth pro season up the Mediterranean coast from his win on stage five of the Tour Med.
"I've been turning around the win in this same particular stage of Paris-Nice for the past three or four years," Chavanel commented after the finish. "I was really motivated and my team-mates did a good job. I attacked at the beginning of the downhill and Cunego did the biggest part of the work. At the 1km mark, I decided not to take any more turns. Rebellin let a gap open, I went to catch Sanchez and I counter-attacked."
The Frenchman was delighted. "This is a lot of emotion," he said. "It pleases me really. I'm doing the best Paris-Nice of my career. To have worn the yellow jersey for one day and to have won a stage with the possibility of a top 10 overall is very good for me. Apparently you guys also liked what I did. I even had time to enjoy it with putting my arms up in the air."
The yellow jersey could get no help chasing the leaders, and wound up in a second group behind 13 riders, including Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto) and green jersey Thor Hushovd. In the end, he lost 1'27" to Rebellin, and lost all hope of regaining the yellow jersey all because of a poor descent. "It went very fast uphill," Gesink explained. "Right at the top of the Tanneron, Rebellin went so fast that I couldn't stay on his wheel. The few meters I lost there made the downhill terrible. I didn't know what was going on. I was [terrified]. When I saw Fränk Schleck crashing in front of me, I was even more afraid and I could see the gap between Thor Hushovd's group and myself going bigger and bigger."
The young Dutchman looked devastated in Cannes. "I'm very disappointed to lose Paris-Nice downhill," he concluded. "I don't know how much I can do in the final stage but my chances are very small now."
Rebellin enjoyed taking the yellow jersey over from Gesink just one year after losing it to Alberto Contador on the final day of Paris-Nice. He didn't have a very strong team at his service in 2007, but Bernhard Kohl was a fantastic helper to him in the finale despite being in a breakaway for 170 kilometers before that. Like Gerolsteiner last year, Rabobank couldn't back its leader through to the end. Gesink, who couldn't hold the pace of the Italians on the downhill, was isolated at the bottom of the Tanneron with only Clément Lhôtellerie to try and bring him back.
The Frenchman who rides for the other Dutch registered team, Skil-Shimano, was initially a member of the early breakaway and he decided to wait for the bunch after scoring points for the King of the Mountains prize. "This was the best thing to do for trying to keep his position in the top 10," Skil-Shimano's directeur sportif Rudi Kemna explained. Lhôtellerie is now 11th and Gesink out of the top three.
The last stage will be a duel between Rebellin and Nocentini. It recalls last year's battle between Rebellin and Contador. The Ag2r rider is twice as close to the yellow jersey as Contador was, lagging by only three seconds. Once again, the suspense should last till the very end.
How it unfolded
Simon Gerrans who came in sixth the day before in Sisteron was a non-starter due to a sore throat. A first attack by Yoann Le Boulanger (Française des Jeux) and Christophe Edaleine (Ag2r) after 10 kilometers didn't meet any particular success, but the next one was going to go far with eight riders who broke clear 13.5km away from the starting point: Clément Lhôtellerie (Skil-Shimano), Chris Sorensen and Bobby Julich (CSC), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Mathieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Kevin Ista (Agritubel) and Aleksandr Kuchinsky (Liquigas).
Sandy Casar accelerated after 20km of racing but never managed to reach the front group. The wearer of the polka dot jersey Lhôtellerie passed in first position at the col de Lecques at km 73 where the bunch led by Rabobank was situated 5'10" behind the breakaway. The Frenchman was also first up the col de Luens and the côte de du Mousteiret at km 96. After scoring enough points to secure his lead in the King of the Mountains competition, he returned to the bunch.
The seven leaders reached a maximum lead of 5'25" at the col d'Espargon (km 117). At that point, the teams Lampre and Caisse d'Epargne took care of the chase and the gap went down slowly. The two Belgian riders Steegmans and Ista disappeared from the breakaway group on the col de Bourigaille. In the downhill, race leader Robert Gesink had a flat tyre. Three of his team-mates waited for him and brought him back while Luis Leon Sanchez told everybody to stop pacing hard until the yellow jersey got back on.
Before the col de Tanneron, whose summit was just 20km away from the finish in Cannes, Quick Step and Ag2r also rode behind the five men who started climbing with 1'55" advantage. At the top of the 5.8km climb, the two remaining leaders Julich and Sprick were just 40 seconds ahead. Sprick crashed on a curve, leaving the American alone away.
A chasing group was formed at the initiative of Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), with Damiano Cunego (Lampre) doing most of the work on the tricky descent. At the bottom, Julich was caught and a new seven-man front group was formed, once again with Kohl but also Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) and Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne).
Gesink was the main victim of the fast downhill, but he also didn't have any team-mates on his side in the third group, Lhôtellerie being his only helper as he also wanted to maintain his position in the top 10 on GC.
While the new contenders for the yellow jersey, Rebellin and Nocentini, marked each other in the final kilometer, Chavanel stunned everybody at the 500 meters to go mark. He went for the stage win and Rebellin became the new race leader, three seconds ahead of Nocentini.