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Stage 7 of Paris-Nice, 219.5km from Sisteron to Nice.
Welcome to Cyclingnews' coverage of the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice, and it's a long day in the saddle for the survivors of the Race to the Sun, as they snake their way from Sisteron down to the Mediterranean coast.
Overnight leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) has six seconds in hand over Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) and ten over Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Lotto), while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) lurks in 4th place, 18 seconds down. With the Col d'Eze time trial to come tomorrow, one imagines Wiggins would be happy simply to maintain the status quo today. For Valverde in particular, however, today's stage is the last chance to knock Wiggins off his perch. The 1st category Col de Vence is the day's major difficulty, but at 54km from the finish, it seems more likely to force an initial selection than to decide the stage.
Out on the road, Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) were a massive twelve minutes clear of the peloton at the 100km mark, while Evgeni Petrov (Astana) is chasing alone, 10:50 behind the two leaders.
Today's stage is the last chance for a number of teams to show their faces at the front end of the peloton at this Paris-Nice, and consequently there was a high-octane start to proceedings as rider after rider attempted to sneak off the front in the opening kilometres. When the bunch covers 50.3km in the first hour of racing, however, sneaking off the front becomes a decidedly complicated endeavour...
Europcar's Paris-Nice started badly when Pierre Rolland was forced to rule himself out with a knee injury, and things have continued in a rather low-key vein throughout the week. Not surprisingly, there was a plethora of green jerseys straining every sinew to break clear in the first hour, but ultimately it was Taaramae and De Gendt who found the golden ticket after 48km of racing.
Incidentally, Taaramae was an early faller on today's stage, but the Estonian dusted himself off and was swiftly back into the fray. A highly-touted prospect, Taaramae would have expected far better than 96th place at 31:07 before this race began, and he has the distinct look of a man looking to salvage something from his week's slog through the wind and rain to Nice.
Once Taaramae and De Gendt established a lead, the peloton lay down its arms behind and a temporary truce was established. By the summit of the day's first climb, the 2nd category Col des Lèques (73.5km), the pair already had 8:25 over a bunch led by king of the mountains Frederik Veuchelen (Vacansoleil-DCM).
At the top of the second category Col de Luens, where De Gendt took maximum points once again, their lead was 10:50. It was on the slopes of this climb that Petrov, to the general bemusement of the peloton, decided to go on the offensive and try to bridge across alone to the break.
The third climb of the day was the category 3 Côte de Peyroules (99km), and once more, De Gendt duly swept up the points for his teammate Veuchelen. Petrov came across the top 10:45 down, while the peloton continued to ride at a more sedate tempo behind.
On the plateau that follows the top of the Cote de Peyroules, the peloton is 12:35 behind Taaramae and De Gendt, with Petrov going nowhere fast at 11:00. A long descent towards the day's intermediate sprint at Tourrettes-sur-Loup follows, before the 9.7km climb to the top of the Col de Vence (average gradient 6.6%).
The prime atop the Col de Vence comes with 54km still to race, and although the road briefly kicks up again soon afterwards, it's then downhill all the way into Nice.
The hyperactive pace in the opening salvoes of today's stage has taken a toll on a lot of heavy legs in the peloton. Riders to abandon so far today include Denis Menchov (Katusha), Peio Bilbao (Euskatel-Euskadi), Christian Knees (Sky) and Roy Curvers (Project 1t4i).
Five other riders were non-starters this morning: Leigh Howard (GreenEdge), Rémy Di Gregorio (Cofidis), Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) and Lars Bak (Lotto Belisol).
The pace has settled down somewhat since that rapid opening hour, although that's partially explicable by the more rugged terrain in the middle third of the stage. After three hours of racing, the average speed is now 41.9kph.
Crash for Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). The American went down with Adrian Saez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), but both men are quickly back on their bikes and don't seem to have sustained any injuries.
As the leaders pass through Gréolières, they will be able to sense the faintest signs that the peloton is rousing from its slumber. The gap to the bunch is down to 11:45, while Petrov ploughs his most lonesome of furrows at 11:15.
Evgeni Petrov's solo pursuit comes to an end as he is reeled back in by a peloton that is still really only on the cusp of developing an interest in whittling down Taaramae and De Gendt's lead.
The two leaders have finished their lengthy descent and have zipped through the intermediate sprint at Tourrettes-sur-Loup. De Gendt takes the three bonus seconds for first place, while Taaramae will pick up two seconds for his troubles. It's all academic, of course, as De Gendt was 15:44 off Bradley Wiggins' lead this morning, and Taaramae was over half an hour down.
The spectators here will have a bit of a wait for the main bunch, which is still over 11 minutes down the road. Taaramae and De Gendt clip on at their own pace. As the crow flies, they're not very far from Nice at all, but instead of continuing southeast towards the coast, they're swinging northwards towards the Col de Vence.
Onto the lower slopes of the Col de Vence for our two leaders, and almost instantly Thomas De Gendt is on the attack. The Belgian is determined to rid himself of Taaramae, but the Cofidis man comes resolutely back up to his wheel.
Meanwhile, almost twelve minutes further back down the road... Tom Boonen picks up the one-second bonus for third at the intermediate sprint as the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team comes to the front of the peloton on the run-in to the Col de Vence.
Tit for tat on the Col de Vence. Rein Taaramae tries to jump clear and leave De Gendt standing, but the Belgian is quickly across to his wheel.
De Gendt responds in kind and opens a gap over Taaramae on the slopes of the Col de Vence.
Taaramae looks to be in real difficulty as De Gendt's lead stretches out to 18 seconds with one kilometre to go to the summit.
After floundering initially, Taaramae has found some kind of rhythm over the final kilometre of the climb. He crosses the summit 12 seconds down on De Gendt.
De Gendt certainly isn't hanging around on this descent. He throws himself into the effort and immediately opens his lead back out to 17 seconds.
Back in the main peloton, Sky have been setting the tempo in the service of Bradley Wiggins on the Col de Vence and the Briton has not been put under any pressure so far.
Luis Angel Mate leads the bunch over the Col de Vence 11:50 behind the leaders. Wiggins enjoyed a trouble free ascent of the climb, but Sky will have to be vigilant on the long, sinuous descent into Nice.
Taaramae's apparent recovery on the final kilometre of the climb looks to have been just an illusion. De Gendt has taken flight on the descent and has stretched his advantage out to 1:15. There may be over 40km to go, but with the bunch still almost 12 minutes behind, the Belgian must surely sense the stage win.
Meanwhile in Italy, stage four of Tirreno-Adriatico has just ended, and it was a thrilling finish in Chieti. A finale which students of intra-team politics will have observed with considerable interest. Full results and report to come here.
Thomas De Gendt is continuing to extend his advantage over Taaramae. He now has 1:35 in hand over his erstwhile breakaway companion.
The Movistar team of Alejandro Valverde has taken up the pace-setting at the front of the peloton on this long, twisting descent but so far they are making no inroads into De Gendt's mammoth lead. He remains 11:50 clear of the pack.
It's really not been Levi Leipheimer's day. The American has fallen for the second time on the stage. The peloton took a sharp left hand bend at a very ginger pace, and Leipheimer was among the riders caught up. He doesn't seem to be hurt and is quickly on his bike and chasing back on with two of his teammates for company.
De Gendt was the surprise winner of the opening stage of Paris-Nice at Houdan last year, and he looks set to repeat that feat this time around. He still has 11:30 in hand and it would take something very dramatic to happen for him to squander all of that in the space of 31 kilometres.
Movistar's stint of pace-setting is bringing the gap down slightly, and it will be interesting to see what Valverde's tactics will be in the finale here.
De Gendt's lead has dropped slightly over these past few kilometres but in spite of the exposed roads, he is showing few serious signs of fatigue on this descent.
Leipheimer is continuing to chase the main peloton, surrounded by a gaggle of Omega Pharma-QuickStep jerseys. They can catch glimpses of the neutral service car just out of reach around the corner, but such is Movistar's pace-setting that the gap won't close of its own account...
Indeed, that gap seems to be stretching out. According to race radio, Leipheimer and co are now 50 seconds behind the Imanol Erviti-led peloton. While Movistar are doing all the work at the front, this is good news for Sky and Bradley Wiggins - Leipheimer was perhaps a little too close for comfort overall ahead of tomorrow's time trial.
Leipheimer and his teammates have reached the cars at the rear of the peloton, just as road narrows significantly.
Dries Devenyns is back there with him, and he almost came a cropper when he pulled a foot out on a corner. He's quickly back up to speed, however, and helping out with Leipheimer's chase effort.
Overall leader Bradley Wiggins is sitting at the back of the Movistar train, keeping a keen eye on the green jersey of Alejandro Valverde.
Leipheimer almost overshoots a right hand bend, and loses a number of lengths on his teammates. They adjust their pace accordingly. They remain 45 seconds behind the peloton.
Game over for Leipheimer as he falls for the third time. A motorbike had stopped just past a right hand bend and Leipheimer and Devenyns couldn't avoid falling off.
The first Omega Pharma-QuickStep riders through that bend had to unclip but just about managed to scramble around it without falling. No such luck for Leipheimer, who slammed into the back of Devenyns.
Leipheimer climbs gingerly to his feet and gets back into the saddle, but he will take no further risks here. He pedals off slowly with Tony Martin for company, and the German gives him a consoling pat on the shoulder as they take off.
Devenyns took the brunt of that crash and while he was coaxed back to his feet by directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters, it's unclear if he will be able to continue.
Up front, De Gendt enters the final 10km with 10:50 in hand over the peloton. Taaramae has long since lost all hope of stage victory as he trails by four minutes in second place.
Wider roads now for Thomas De Gendt, and he will have plenty of time to savour his victory over the closing kilometres.
Movistar continue to drive the pace at the front end of the peloton. The green jersey of Valverde sits in fourth position, while Wiggins watches him intently.
Wiggins has been an increasingly visible presence over the past couple of kilometres. He moves up onto Valverde's shoulder, while Geraint Thomas sits next to him.
Spanish champion Jose Joaquin Rojas sits on Valverde's wheel, with a phalanx of Sky riders lined up behind them.
Into the outskirts of Nice for Thomas De Gendt, who rides with the blue waters of the Mediterranean on his right shoulder.
After almost 220km in the saddle, De Gendt will be glad that it's a virtually pan flat run-in to the finish on the Promenade des Anglais.
Taaramae is now over five minutes behind, but he should still do enough to hang on for second place.
A thumbs up from De Gendt to the cameras as he enters the final kilometre. With 11 minutes in hand, he could afford to walk the Promenade des Anglais and he'd still hold on for the win.
A cursory glance over his shoulder and then the litany of victory salutes begin for De Gendt. He sensed his moment on the Col de Vence and left Taaramae standing. After 57km alone at the front of the race (and 172km after his initial attack with Taaramae), there's no arguing but that De Gendt was a deserving winner.
Team Sky take over at the front of the peloton on the final flat kilometres. Taaramae will take second place, but there are still bonus seconds up for grabs for third.
Wiggins is lined up in fourth position at the front of the peloton. A four-second time bonus is up for grabs in the sprint for third on the stage.
A tired-looking Taaramae comes across the line in second place, 6:17 down. He shyly acknowledges the applause from the crowds at the roadside. After doing his utmost to limit his losses on the Col de Vence, Taaramae lost his way on the descent and it was soon apparent that he was fighting a losing battle.
Meanwhile, Leipheimer chases 16:25 down on the road. After scarcely putting a foot wrong all week, his race fell apart on the descent of the Col de Vence.
Wiggins slips back as the sprint for third gets underway in the main pack.
John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i) takes the sprint for third place, 9:24 down. Leipheimer aside, the overall picture will remain unchanged ahead of Sunday's concluding time trial. Wiggins has 6 seconds over Lieuwe Westra and 18 over Alejandro Valverde. A dejected Leipheimer continues to pedal towards the finish, minutes down on the peloton.
1 Thomas De Gendt (Bel)Vacansoleil-DCM
2 Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis 00:06:18
3 John Degenkolb (Ger) Project 1t4i 00:09:24
4 Greg Henderson (NZl) Lotto Belisol
5 Thor Hushovd (Nor) BMC Racing
6 José Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Movistar
7 Romain Feillu (Fra) Vacansoleil-DCM
8 Simon Clarke (Aus) GreenEdge Cycling Team
9 Xavier Florencio (Spa) Katusha
10 Grega Bole (Slo) Lampre-ISD
1 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling
2 Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM 0:00:06
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:18
4 Simon Spilak (Slo) Katusha Team 0:00:37
5 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:39
6 Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan 0:00:46
7 Arnold Jeannesson (Fra) FDJ-Bigmat 0:01:06
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of today's stage of Paris-Nice. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full results, report and pictures from today's stage to Nice, and we'll back tomorrow with live coverage of the decisive time trial on the Col d'Eze. The final day of Paris-Nice has a long tradition of throwing up surprises but given his assured performance so far this week, Wiggins will surely fancy his chances of sealing overall victory.