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Live coverage of Paris-Tours, the final classic of the season.
As we pick up the action at Cangey with a shade under 75 kilometres to race, a break of four riders has a lead of 4:41 over the peloton.
Sebastian Lander (BMC), Julien Duval (Roubaix Lille Metropole), Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling) and Yannick Martinez (La Pomme-Marseille) are our four leaders. They slipped away early and held a lead of ten minutes after 70 kilometres of racing. Since then, the peloton has gradually begun to chip away at their advantage, with Garmin-Sharp and FDJ the prime movers in the bunch.
The four escapees are heading towards Amboise and one of the quintessential images of Paris-Tours - the evocative crossing of the Loire in the shadow of the mighty Château d'Amboise.
There is pleasant low autumn sunshine overhead, rather than the slate grey skies so often seen in the Loire valley at this time of year. The four escapees are continuing to collaborate smoothly, but they'll struggle to hold off the bunch as their lead dips down towards four minutes.
There's a strong delegation from FDJ near the front of the peloton. They're working on behalf of Arnaud Demare, the man charged with leading the home challenge against the pre-race favourite, John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano).
As FDJ lead the peloton over the mighty Loire at Amboise, they have pegged the gap back to 4:05. It's already been a good day for FDJ, of course, with their other great young sprint talent Nacer Bouhanni securing his second successive stage victory at the Tour of Beijing this morning.
Garmin-Sharp are also contributing to the chase in support of Tyler Farrar, who recently had a double helping of good news after a trying season. First up, the American claimed a stage win at the Circuit Franco-Belge, and shortly afterwards, Garmin-Sharp finally handed him a contract for the 2014 season.
As the Lander, Duval, Saramotins and Martinez enter the final 60 kilometres, their advantage has dropped back inside four minutes for the first time.
Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) is another contender for the win today, but for now he sitting at the rear of the peloton, sporting a black jacket, sunglasses and beard, not altogether unlike Joaquin Phoenix in mockumentary 'I'm Still Here.'
Bryan Coquard (Europcar) has enjoyed a fine first full season as a professional, and the young talent would love to sign off on a high with victory in Tours. His Europcar team has just added a man to the chase effort, which is now featuring a mix of riders from Argos-Shimano, FDJ and Garmin-Sharp.
It's worth noting, of course, that it's three years since we had a bunch finish at the end of Paris-Tours, when Oscar Freire made some amends for a disappointing 2010 Worlds in Geelong the previous week by nipping in ahead of Angel Furlan and Gert Steegmans for the win.
Indeed, since Nicola Minali's brace of wins in the mid 1990s, bunch sprints have been surprisingly rare at Paris-Tours, with the only Erik Zabel (2003 and 2005), Alessandro Petacchi (2007) and Freire (2010) breaking the sequence of breakaway wins of various shapes and sizes.
The escapees are now tackling an unclassified false flat, and their efforts are clearly beginning to take a toll. Back in the peloton, meanwhile, Europcar, Argos-Shimano and FDJ.fr have sliced their lead to 3:23.
The terrain becomes slightly more rugged on the run-in towards Tours, and this is where the winning break has taken shape in recent years. One man with particular motivation to win today is Sylvain Chavanel, who is looking to mark his final race in the colours of Omega Pharma-QuickStep, before heading on to pastures new at IAM Cycling next season.
The break's lead is beginning to dwindle quite rapidly now. It's dropped to just a shade over three minutes, and the sprinters' teams might well be advised to rein in their efforts and let the quartet linger out there a little longer.
Aleksejs Saramotins has been very impressive in driving the break this afternoon, but it seems as if the quartet are fighting a losing battle. Their lead is down to just 2:47 and Omega Pharma-QuickStep are now moving towards the front of the peloton.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep have Andy Fenn in their ranks in the event of a bunch finish, but we can expect some aggression from the likes of Chavanel and Niki Terpstra on the run-in towards Tours.
BMC have Sebastian Lander in the break, but as soon as the escapees are caught, 2011 Paris-Tours winner Greg Van Avermaet will doubtless be agitating at the front end of the bunch.
The camerman from France Télévisions has been focusing intently on Chavanel in the past few kilometres. The Frenchman sits impassively near the front of the bunch, the bill of his cap pulled up.
Lander, Duval, Saramotins and Martinez enter the final 40 kilometres near Esvres with their lead clipped back to 2:30.
The men who plan on attacking in the final 30 kilometres are pushing their way towards the front of the peloton, where FDJ.fr are winding up the pace.
FDJ.fr's pressing is stringing out the peloton in a long line and they're also shaving more and more time off the break's lead. The gap slips below two minutes.
The bunch is bowling through some flat and very exposed roads, and there is a scramble for positions near the front. This is prime territory for splits to develop, and a number of riders are beginning to suffer at the rear of the peloton.
The race is heading towards the short climb of Côte de Crochu, hence the scuffling for the best positions in the peloton.
A delegation from Omega Pharma-QuicKStep has muscled its way to the front of the pack, and it will be interesting to see if Syvlain Chavanel looks to spark a move on the Côte de Crochu.
The four leaders hit the base of the Côte de Crochu with a lead of 1:22 over the peloton.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep lead the peloton into the base of the climb, and Niki Terpstra attacks as soon as the road goes uphill.
Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) follows Terpstra and the bunch is strung out in a long line on this climb.
The attacking on the front of the bunch is causing problems for those behind, with Ciolek among the riders who has been dropped.
Terpstra kicks again towards the front of the climb and opens a small gap, while Sylvain Chavanel is in a small group of four riders just behind him. Omega Pharma-QuickStep are looking to break up the race on this trio of climbs in the finale
Argos-Shimano bring the Terpstra move back over the top of the climb, and it was interesting to note how active Lars Boom (Belkin) was in tracking the move.
The peloton has been reduced in size by the flurry of attacks on Côte de Crochu and, more tellingly, the break's lead has been cut back to just 45 seconds.
The next categorised climb is the Côte de Beau Soleil with 10km to go, followed in quick succession by the Côte de l'Épan, before the run-in to the finale on the Avenue de Grammont. That famous finishing straight, of course, has been truncated in recent years, from 2.2km to just 800 metres, due to the construction of a tram line through the centre of Tours.
There is a constant spate of attacks at the front of the bunch. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has a go and is pegged back, and shortly afterwards, Sylvain Chavanel tracks a move from Ignatas Konovalovas (MTN-Qhubeka) but opts not to come through.
A crash in the peloton brings down a number of riders, and Bryan Coquard is among those forced to change bikes. He's quickly back in the saddle, but he will be hard-pressed to get back on at this point.
Up front, an attack from Duval sees Sebastian Lander (BMC) dropped from the break. The leading group is down to three with a lead of 26 seconds over the bunch.
Meanwhile, a small counter attack has formed just clear of the main peloton. There are five riders in there, and representatives from Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Belkin, Argos-Shimano and BMC, and the pace has dropped accordingly in the main peloton.
Sep Vanmarckes (Belkin), Cyril Lemoine (Sojasun) and Martin Velits (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) are in this five-man chase group, while Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling) has ripped clear of the break ahead of them.
Bryan Coquard is safely latched back on to the main peloton. Meanwhile, Saramotins is alone in front of the race, 23 seconds clear of an eight-man chase group that is being led by Martin Velits and Sep Vanmarcke. FDJ.fr are leading the peloton about 30 seconds or so behind.
Saramotins is showing impressive strength to open his gap out to 25 seconds over the Vanmarcke group, Meanwhile, the FDJ.fr-led bunch is within touching distance of Vanmarcke and company.
The Vanmarcke group has been brought back by the main peloton, and IAM Cycling have placed a number of riders towards the front of the bunch. One would assume their attention is to hinder the pursuit of their teammate Saramotins, although the pace is high. Perhaps they are not aware they still have a teammate out in front?
IAM Cycling's interruption has allowed a three-man move slip off the front of the bunch in pursuit of Saramotins, whose lead is now down to just 12 seconds.
For the first since he jumped away this morning, the bunch can see Aleksejs Saramotins. The Latvian has put in a fine effort this afternoon, but his gap is down to just ten seconds and the pace is ratcheting ever upwards in the peloton.
The twists and turns of the road through Ballan-Mire give Saramotins a chance to breathe an extra second or two into his lead, but he surely won't last much longer.
Argos-Shimano take over at the front of the peloton. They'll want to keep the speed up over the Côte de Beau Soleil and discourage attacks, given Degenkolb's recent sprinting form.
Saramotins has a lead of three seconds as he approaches the base of the Côte de Beau Soleil. A phalanx of Belkin riders hit the front of the bunch alongside Argos-Shimano.
Saramotins is caught on the approach to the Côte de Beau Soleil.
Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacks at the foot of the Côte de Beau Soleil and he brings Sep Vanmarcke and John Degenkolb clear with him.
Marcato gets a turn from Vanmarcke when he swings over, but Degenkolb is reticent to commit to the move.
The three leaders have a decent gap, however, although they could be joined by a four-man group of chasers featuring Sylvain Chavanel.
Marcato leads over the top of the climb, and on the descent, the leading group swells to seven riders, as Chavanel and Michael Morkov (Saxo-Tinkoff) make it across.
Jetse Bol (Belkin) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) are in this seven-man leading group, which is increasingly looking to be the winning break. Demare did well to track Chavanel on the climb.
Demare, Morkov, Chavanel, Degenkolb, Bol, Vanmarcke and Marcato hit the final climb of the Côte de l'Épan together, just ahead of the main peloton.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) puts in a stunning effort on the climb and the Belgian manages to bridge across alone to the leaders. Eight men now out in front. If they can reach a working agreement, they have the firepower to go all the way to Tours together.
Jetse Bol (Belkin) slips away on the descent of the Epan and gains a small gap over the break, which is lacking in cohesion.
The bunch is breathing down the necks of the Demare-Chavanel-Degenkolb group, and it looks as though they will be reeled in. Meanwhile, Bol is stretching out his lead.
The Demare-Chavanel group is caught by the bunch, while Bol puts his head down and extends his lead to around ten seconds.
Bol continues to lead as Bretagne-Seche take up the reins in the peloton. Argos-Shimano will surely look to take responsibilty for the chase given the form Degenkolb showed on the final climbs.
Argos-Shimano hit the front of the bunch, but their train has a pair of Belkin riders trying to upset their rhythm. Bol has a lead of 12 seconds and a real chance of hanging on.
Van Rensburg sets the tempo for Argos-Shimano at the front as they head towards the final two kilometres, but Lars Boom is looking to slow things for his teammate Bol.
Seven seconds the gap for Bol with a shade over 1500 metres to go, as FDJ.fr take over the chase at the front of the peloton.
Bol has just a handful of seconds as he enters the final kilometre.
Bol leads into the Avenue de Grammont, but he surely can't hold them off at this point.
FDJ.fr lead out the sprint for Arnaud Demare...
As the bunch sweeps past Bol, Degenkolb dives for Demare's wheel...
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) wins Paris-Tours.
Michael Morkov (Saxo-Tinkoff) took third, while Demare held on for third place.
Demare opened his sprint early, shortly after Bol was caught, but he had Degenkolb locked onto his wheel, and there was little to be done against the German.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) finished 4th, ahead of Michael Van Staeyen (Topsport-Vlaanderen), while Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) came home in 6th.
There can be little argument that Degenkolb was worth his win, given his presence in the break that formed on the penultimate climb of the day. Morkov and Demare were both in there, too, of course, and that trio showed considerable strength to come through again in the sprint.
1 John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano
2 Michael Morkov (Den) Team Saxo-Tinkoff
3 Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ
4 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp
5 Michael Van Staeyen (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise
6 Heinrich Haussler (Aus) IAM Cycling
7 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
8 Jon Aberasturi Izaga (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
9 Ioannis Tamouridis (Gre) Euskaltel-Euskadi
10 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-QuickStep