Steegmans does the double

Thor Hushovd goes hunger-flat but retains lead

Gert Steegmans has imitated the star of Quick Step, captain Tom Boonen, by taking a second stage win in a row in Paris-Nice. In the absence of the 2005 World Champion, who has chosen to ride Tirreno-Adriatico instead of Paris-Nice, Steegmans scored his second consecutive victory in Belleville, exactly where Boonen won stage two in the 'race to the sun' two years ago.

It was a fabulous finale with yellow jersey Thor Hushovd attacking solo on the descent from the final climb. "Initially, I only followed someone who accelerated," the Norwegian explained. "At the bottom I realized there was a gap but I suddenly got hunger-flat. I tried to eat but for the last five kilometers, I was totally flat. I didn't have any energy for sprinting." Still, the Crédit Agricole rider took second, which allowed him to retain the lead.

"I'm happy to keep the yellow jersey," he added. "But I had a big chance to win this stage without this hunger-flat, and I came to Paris-Nice to win stage 1 or stage 2." With the prologue already bagged and the show he produced, Hushovd can be proud of what he did in the first three days of the event.

Despite the controversy surrounding the unofficial international race, and the conflict between ASO and the UCI, the 75th anniversary of Paris-Nice has proven to be an interesting edition. The end of stage two looked like a Spring classic, something that Steegmans can reasonably aim at winning himself now. "Winning a classic is difficult for me because there are many other riders in my team able to do it," said the Belgian rider who is more used to putting himself at the service of Boonen than riding for himself in the biggest events.

"I wasn't confident enough to ride for the win in the past," Steegmans admitted. "I always had troubles with my sugar level and I always got hunger-flat after 200 kilometers of racing. We've worked on that last year and it's resolved now. I also went to see a psychologist Jeff Brauwers quite a lot and my mental approach of the racing is much better now. I'm less stressed and more confident."

This was obvious when he followed Sylvain Chavanel in the downhill behind Hushovd, taking over from Philippe Gilbert who didn't make his effort at the right time and wasn't happy to be the first man of the bunch coming fifth place behind the four leaders.

As Hushovd was flat, Steegmans didn't have more problems winning the sprint in Belleville than the day before in Nevers. "I came here to win a stage and I got two already so I'm delighted," the Belgian said.

Due to the crashes which involved a few big guns like Fränk Schleck, only 49 riders made the front group, one of them being Damiano Cunego who wasn't optimistic on the start line. "I got sick at the Vuelta Valenciana and I never recovered," he said. "I had fever yesterday [he lost 6 minutes in Nevers, ed.]. If it's bad weather again today, I'll pull out." He kept going despite the persistent rain, so he might enjoy the coming hills. Stage 3 includes the Croix de Chaubouret before arriving in Saint-Etienne and stage 4 finishes at the Mont Ventoux.

How it unfolded

Present at the start in Nevers, Oscar Pereiro who finished in the last group the day before, didn't sign in due to bronchitis.

At km 15, three young Frenchmen attacked: Rémi Pauriol (Crédit Agricole), Clément Lhotellerie (Skil-Shimano) and Sébastien Minard (Cofidis). But the bunch was prompt to react. Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) was the next one to try his luck at km 29 but Thierry Hupond (Skil-Shimano) was the one who succeeded to break clear.

He got a maximum lead of 15'10 at the feed zone of Paray-le-Monial, the home town of the former winner of the Tour de France Bernard Thévenet (in 1975 and 1977) situated at km 105. His advantage dropped down drastically when the race hit the five climbs in the last part of the stage. Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Benat Intxausti (Saunier Duval) accelerated strongly in the col de Fût d'Avenas. They caught the French neo-pro with 20km to go.

In the downhill, race leader Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) was inspired by an acceleration by Matteo Tosatto (Quick Step). He continued on his own and created a gap of 20 seconds before facing some head wind in the valley prior to reaching the town of Belleville. It was a spectacular ride from the yellow jersey but he ran out of gas and waited for the chasers who were only three: Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Michael Albasini (Liquigas).

The four men kept a three second lead on the line with Steegmans pulling a powerful uphill sprint for the second day in a row. Coming second, Hushovd kept the yellow jersey.

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