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Stage 2 of Paris-Nice, 205 kilometres from Rambouillet to Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche.
As we pick up the action after 107 kilometres of racing, early escapees Anthony Delaplace (Bretagne-Séché) and Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling) are 7:40 clear of the peloton, having been puffed along by a stiff tailwind for much of the morning.
Delaplace and the Latvian champion Saramotins broke away after just 2.5 kilometres of racing and the peloton was immediately happy to leave them to it. By kilometre 8, their lead was already at 3:05 and it continued to extend thereafter.
After the tension and crashes of yesterday, there were plenty of riders glad of any kind of respite in the early stages this morning. The pace in the peloton was sedate in the first hour, which meant that Delaplace and Saramotins could build a lead of 9:15 after 19 kilometres.
The two escapees covered 43 kilometres in the first hour of racing, by which point they were fully 11:30 clear of the bunch. That was the cue for the FDJ.fr team of Nacer Bouhanni to make their way to the front of the pack, and they gradually began to trim back the leaders' advantage.
After 70 kilometres, the break's lead was down to 7:40 and that gap has stayed more or less steady ever since, a puncture from Saramotins notwithstanding. Wisely, Delaplace waited for his companion, and their working agreement continues unabated out in front.
This was the general classification situation this morning:
1 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ.fr 3:53:01
2 Gianni Meersman (Bel) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 0:00:01
3 John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano 0:00:04
4 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team 0:00:08
5 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky 0:00:09
6 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) IAM Cycling
7 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:10
8 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin Sharp
9 Bryan Coquard (Fra) Team Europcar
10 Luca Wackermann (Ita) Lampre-Merida
Delaplace began the day 10 seconds down on Bouhanni and is, of course, the yellow jersey on the road, but Saramotins' IAM Cycling directeur sportif Eddy Seigneur, for one, does not hold out much hope for the break's chances. "We had hoped for a break of five or six men. With only two of them, this is a lost cause," Seigneur cheerfully told letour.fr.
IAM Cycling's primary aim for Paris-Nice, of course, is to try and deliver Sylvain Chavanel to overall victory. This year's open-ended parcours - no time trial and no summit finish, remember - is wide open to interpretation, and in theory a rider as inventive as Chavanel should thrive on this course.
Chavanel certainly enjoyed a better opening stage than some of the other overall contenders, including Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who was held up by crashes and lost time, as did Andy and Frank Schleck (Trek), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
At least Bardet, Voeckler et al are still in the race. Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who arrived in France buoyed by a fine showing at the Tour of Oman last month, was forced to abandon Paris-Nice on stage 1,suffering from illness
. He should return to action at the Volta a Catalunya, which is set to feature a particularly high-calibre field in 2014.
Delaplace and Saramotins' lead had begun to yawn back out to 8:30, but there's a frisson in the peloton now as the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team of Tom Boonen and Gianni Meersman hit the front and begin to coordinate the chase.
On the corresponding stage two years ago, of course, Omega Pharma-QuickStep shattered the peloton in the crosswinds. Tom Boonen won the sprint from the 21-man leading echelon in Orleans on that occasion, while Bradley Wiggins put a significant deposit on final overall victory.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep's injection of pace has quickly shave two minutes off the break's lead and the gap now stands at 6:10.
There's just one climb on the agenda this afternoon, the category 3 Côte de la Ferté-Loupière with 44 kilometres remaining. Although there are a few undulations on the run-in, it's hard to see past a group finish in Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche.
Overall leader Nacer Bouhanni reckonstoday's stage will finish in a bunch sprint
and he will fancy his chances of holding on to the yellow jersey (even after 13 years, it still feels wrong not to have the leader of Paris-Nice in white, mind) this afternoon. His tenure in the lead ended prematurely last year, of course, when Bouhanni sufferedfacial injuries in a crash on stage 3
Saramotins and Delaplace are continuing their collaboration out in front, and they still hold a lead of some 6:10 over the Omega Pharma-QuickStep-led peloton. According to Chapatte's Law, Saramotins and Delaplace's endeavour is not quite the hopeless cause Eddy Seigneur makes it out to be, but as the pace ratchets up in the bunch, they'll certainly have their work cut out to stay clear.
The Race to the Sun is all too often a cruel misnomer for Paris-Nice, but today the peloton are racing under clear blue skies and in temperatures in excess of 16 degrees celsius.
FDJ.fr and Omega Pharma-QuickStep continue to lead the peloton, and they lie 5:40 down on Delaplace and Saramotins.
Delaplace and Saramotins are now on the day's sole climb, the Côte de la Ferté-Loupière (1.2km at 4%). They had 5:30 on the bunch at the base of the climb.
Andy Schleck (Trek) is at the rear of the peloton after a trip to the team car. The Luxembourger does not seem in any undue distress as he works his way back on.
Saramotins leads Delaplace over the summit of the Côte de la Ferté-Loupière. The peloton, still 5:30 behind, has yet to reach the foot of the climb.
FDJ.fr are beginning to pick up the pace in earnest at the head of the peloton. With 43km remaining, the gap is still 5:30 and they can no longer afford to delay the pursuit unduly.
Word reaching us that Florian Guillou (Bretagne – Séché) was a faller before the approach to the climb, where FDJ.fr lead the bunch, but Astana, Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep are also moving up.
It's in QuickStep's interests to aid FDJ.fr in the chase here - Gianni Meersman has drawn level with Bouhanni in the virtual overall standings, after picking up 3rd place and one bonus second in the bonus sprint at Malesherbes after 62 kilometres.
Christophe Laborie (Bretagne - Seche) cements his lead in the king of the mountains standings by leading the bunch over the climb in third place, 4:55 down on the two escapees.
There's one more intermediate sprint to come this afternoon, on the first passage through the finish line at Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche, which should provide an interesting dress rehearsal for the finish 20 kilometres later.
The finish is a slightly uphill one today, and the kind of finish that might well suit Meersman or John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), who finished second yesterday.
Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) puts in a huge turn on the front and when he swings over, the peloton is strung out in a line behind him. FDJ.fr now take up the reins once again.
A delegation from Giant-Shimano has now come to the front. There are plenty of teams in the peloton willing to bring the escapees Delaplace and Saramontins back, and their 4:15 lead is likely to begin to tumble more quickly in the next ten kilometres.
Andy Schleck (Trek) has lost contact with the peloton and is caught up in the convoy of cars behind the bunch. The pace is truly beginning to pick up now, and it might be a struggle to latch back on.
The break's lead has now fallen to 3:40 as FDJ.fr, Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Giant-Shimano continue to set the pace.
Andy Schleck finds a way through the convoy and is back with the main peloton. He immediately looks to move up into the main body of the bunch, suggesting that his spell off the back was perhaps a question of positioning rather than a lack of legs.
Up front, Delaplace and Saramotins have entered the finishing circuit and are just seven kilometres shy of their first passage through the finish line. Their lead over the bunch is still a very healthy 3:30, but they will shortly swing into a 10km headwind section and that could prove fatal to their chances.
The bunch enters the finishing circuit 3:15 down on the escapees. Delaplace and Saramotins are still riding strongly and collaborating smoothly. Omega Pharma-QuickStep sense the danger and Vandenbergh is once again ordered to the front of the peloton to help with the chase effort.
With 20 kilometres to go, the two leaders have three minutes in hand over the peloton. They will hardly have expected it when they went clear this morning, but it's still all to play for as they approach the final lap.
Delaplace and Saramotins are riding through the final kilometre of the race as they approach the line for the first time. The sprinters will have to close attention as this is quite a technical finale.
Saramotins has sensed that Delaplace was not as strong as him and he dropped him as they passed underneath the finishing banner. The Latvian is now alone in front, 2:35 clear of the bunch.
Gianni Meersman takes the bonus second for third place in the intermediate sprint. He moves into the overall lead on the road, helped by a powerful lead-out from Tom Boonen. The two QuickStep men opened a huge gap over the bunch, and Boonen duly swung aside to let Meersman through to pick up the bonus second.
Delaplace has made his way back up to Saramotins, and the two leaders have 2:10 in hand on the QuickStep-led peloton with 16km to race.
Orica-GreenEdge are also beginning to contribute to the peloton's chase. The Australian outfit have Michael Matthews and Matt Goss in their ranks, and both men will fancy today's finale.
Simon Gerrans leads the Orica-GreenEdge delegation near the front of the bunch, but it is Omega Pharma-QuickStep who are leading the chase. 1:50 the gap.
Saramotins is the stronger of the two leaders, and he is doing the bulk of the work as they tackle the long headwind section.
Taylor Phinney (BMC) was part of a small group distanced by the bunch, but the American shows impressive force to chase back on to the speeding peloton alone.
With the gap down to 1:35, Saramotins could wait no longer. The Latvian climbs out of the saddle and drops Delaplace. He will now try to fend off the peloton alone.
Simon Gerrans leads the bunch, which is still 1:35 down on Saramotins and running out of road in which to bring him back. Saramotins is on the hardest part of the finishing circuit, riding into a headwind and on a false flat, however, and is beginning to suffer.
Saramotins' gap has suddenly dropped to 50 seconds as Europcar's Thomas Voeckler joins the chase effort. It looks as though the peloton has timed it pursuit to perfection.
A crash in the peloton brings down Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), who has surely lost all chances of a stage win and the yellow jersey. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Lars Boom (Belkin) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) are also among those caught up in the crash.
Meersman is glued to the rear bumper of his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team car as he chases back on the main peloton.
Meersman catches and passes a group of chasers, all while sitting behind his team car. The commissaires might well ask some hard questions if he makes it back on to the bunch here. Delaplace has been caught by the bunch, incidentally.
Saramotins is still hanging on out in front, but his gap is down to 15 seconds and the peloton is closing fast.
Meersman, meanwhile, is caught in the no man's land behind the peloton with Julien Simon (Cofidis) and, of course, the ever-present Omega Pharma team car.
The peloton is now within touching distance of Saramotins, who is about to be swallowed up. A group of BMC riders are trying to move Greg Van Avermaet up ahead of the technical finale.
BMC also, of course, have Thor Hushovd in their ranks, and he might fancy his chances on the uphill finishing straight.
As Saramotins is caught by the bunch, Meersman is just about to latch on to the back.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is well-placed ner the front of the bunch, which is now being led by Adrien Petit (Cofidis).
Meersman is still 50 metres shy of latching back on to the peloton, and it looks like he'll fall just short in his endeavour.
Matt Goss and Tom Boonen are among the riders left behind by the bunch as it enters the final kilometre.
A crash in the peloton on the final right-hand bend causes some confusion ahead of the bunch finish...
Moreno Hofland (Belkin) leads John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) in to the finishing straight....
Moreno Hofland wins stage 2 of Paris-Nice ahead of John Degenkolb. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) takes third.
Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) will retain the yellow jersey, two seconds ahead of Degenkolb.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) took 4th, ahead of Thor Hushovd (BMC) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar).
Hofland was sitting on Degenkolb's wheel as they swung around the final bend, and he swooped clear inside the final 100 metres. After winning a stage of Ruta del Sol and taking second at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Hofland is enjoying a fine run of form.
"I'm a little surprised because with 1 kilometre to go today I was a little too far behind," Hofland said. "I was in the wheel of John Degenkolb and with 200 metres I went a little early and I managed to surprise him. The last couple of weeks have been going pretty good for me and I hope to hold the form as long as possible."
1 Moreno Hofland (Ned) Belkin-Pro Cycling Team 4:53:46
2 John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano
3 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ.fr
4 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha
5 Thor Hushovd (Nor) BMC Racing Team
6 Bryan Coquard (Fra) Team Europcar
7 Armindo Fonseca (Fra) Bretagne - Seche Environnement
8 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Belisol
9 Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Orica GreenEdge
10 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team
1 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ.fr 8:46:43
2 John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano 0:00:02
3 Moreno Hofland (Ned) Belkin-Pro Cycling Team 0:00:04
4 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky 0:00:13
5 Bryan Coquard (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:14
6 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:14
7 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha 0:00:14
8 Nikolay Trusov (Rus) Tinkoff-Saxo 0:00:14
9 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:14
10 Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Orica GreenEdge 0:00:14
Gianni Meersman had moved into the virtual overall lead but a crash scuppered his chances, and so Nacer Bouhanni lives to fill another day in the yellow jersey. A second successive second place sees Degenkolb cut the gap to two seconds, while the in-form Hofland lurks in third, four seconds down on Bouhanni. "The main goal is to get the yellow jersey with Wilco Kelderman and not with me," Hofland insists.
Thanks for following our live coverage of Paris-Nice today on Cyclingnews. We’ll be back with more on the road to Magny-Cours tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can find a full report, pictures and results from stage 2 here.