Paris-Nice leader Davide Rebellin received his second yellow jersey in stage five, finishing well up in the bunch on the difficult uphill run-in to Manosque, but the race could have gone quite differently in the closing kilometres had his Gerolsteiner team not been assisted in the chase by Caisse d'Epargne.
Gerolsteiner's Markus Zberg went with the early breakaway with eventual stage winner Yaroslav Popovych, and could not hold the pace on the Col de Murs. Still, Zberg spent nearly another 20km chasing with three others before eventually being caught at km 55. His team leader, Davide Rebellin felt he should have been in the peloton helping to defend the leader's jersey.
"We didn't need him to pace at this time of the stage," said Rebellin. Popovych held a gap of more than one minute with four kilometres to go, and the effort to close that gap was tremendous. "It wasn't a surprise that we had to face such an attack." said the Italian, "Today, it was Popovych, tomorrow it might be another one. Physically but also nervously, it's very hard to defend the yellow jersey."
The effort of the long chase meant that Gerolsteiner's polka dot jersey wearer Heinrich Haussler arrived last, just inside the time cut. The exhausted German kept his climber's jersey, but was spent. "This was the worst day of my life. I've done 60 kilo meters by myself, and I'm dead. I didn't recover from the day I was away. Three of us had to ride in front of the bunch right at the beginning. I had no energy left."
Director Udo Bölts admitted the race was hard, but was proud of the team effort. "That was surely a hard day for us. But the team handled the task outstandingly. And also Davide was strong," said Bölts, who also indicated that the team won't give up the jersey without a fight. "We will try everything to keep it in our hands."
Why did Caisse d'Epargne help?
The Caisse d'Epargne team put in a great deal of effort to help keep Popovych's gap at a minimum, and this led to some question about why they were assisting Gerolsteiner at all. According to the team, the effort was to benefit David López, who, thanks to his fourth place on the stage, is ninth overall, 43 seconds back.
"We worked a lot in the final", commented López after the finish, "and in the last kilometres we really gave it our all! Personally, I felt very good and I stayed in front to avoid any problems. The last two stages are not easy, but I believe in my chances."
Meanwhile, the Discovery Channel team was celebrating their second consecutive win, with Alberto Contador claiming victory on stage four, and Popovych on the top step on stage five. Contador held his second place overall classification, just six seconds back of race leader David Rebellin. Team director Johan Bruyneel, said, "Our team in Paris-Nice has been very impressive. To have won back to back stages shows that our guys are in good shape and very motivated."
Former Discovery Channel rider Michael Barry, now riding for the T-Mobile team, withdrew from the race. According to T-Mobile director Brian Holm, Barry wasn't feeling well. "We took Michael out of the race this morning. He hasn't fully recovered from a viral infection that's been affecting him for a while. Riding a tough stage like today's col has made things worse."
Another rider who had a bad day was Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank). Flecha was not affected by any crashes, but lost more than 17 minutes from sheer exhaustion. "We think Flecha bonked, but we will still need to keep a close eye on that. I am going to discuss this with the doctor later," said assistant director Frans Maassen. "There is nothing left to win for Flecha in Paris-Nice. Milan-San Remo next week has more priority. We will, therefore, not take any risks. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with him, and he will be fine again on Saturday. We will just need to a keep a close eye on him."
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