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Paris-Nice peloton prepare for battle in Mende

The 2010 edition of Paris-Nice will reach one of its key points on Thursday afternoon with the race's first - and last - uphill finish taking place in Mende on stage four. The ascent up to the local aérodrome, formally called Côte de la Croix Neuve, may be only 3.1 kilometres long, but with its average gradient of 10.1 per cent, it is difficult enough to create substantial gaps in the fight for the overall victory.

The climb, also called 'Montée Jalabert' in honour of former French pro Laurent Jalabert's Tour de France victory there in 1995, has been visited by many races in the past and always proven to be crunch point for overall contenders. In 2005, the Tour again travelled up the famous Côte, with the finish located further along on the plateau at the aérodrome. Marcos Serrano (Liberty Seguros) was strongest that day.

Paris-Nice also already staged a finish on top of the Côte in Mende three years ago. Today's top favourite Alberto Contador (Astana) won the stage - and later took the overall honours in Nice. This year, the Spaniard has shown rapid recovery from his stage one crash and sits only 20 seconds adrift of current race leader Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank). The two-time Tour de France Champion will certainly aim for the yellow jersey on Thursday.

Tall German Voigt knows his chances of retaining the lead in Mende are only slim and that the climb might turn out to conclusive for the overall classification. "It will be difficult," he told AFP on Wednesday evening. "I think the climb is called Montée Jalabert? I'm almost certain that things will be decided tomorrow. There will be more difficult stages after this one, but the last ascents are located 10 or 20 kilometres from the finish each time."

While all eyes will be on Contador, fellow Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne), who won the race in 2009, is also still in contention and has good form. "Alberto [Contador] attacked hard today, and Luis Leo Sanchez did the sprint on Tuesday," continued Voigt. "They are motivated, it's not over. I still hope to win Paris-Nice, I think it's possible. We'll see how I go in Mende..."

With GC honours at stake, the stage will prove to be fast and breakaway attempts will face a tough battle as the overall contenders gear up for the final climb. Other interesting riders to watch will be Garmin-Transitions' David Millar (fourth overall, at 12 seconds), Liquigas leader Roman Kreuziger (fifth, at 14 seconds) and his in-form lieutenant Peter Sagan (second, at only 6 seconds), RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer (eighth, at 24 seconds) and Sanchez' teammate Alejandro Valverde (11th, at 30 seconds), whose form should also be on the rise with the Ardennes Classics approaching.

Moreover, with this year's Tour de France stage 12 also finishing in Mende, today will also serve as a recon ride for those who have not raced the climb before.

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