Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) fulfilled his goals for this year's Paris-Nice by taking the win on the third stage into Vichy, at the same time profiting from a full on attack from the Rabobank team to make the front split and steal the yellow jersey from Alberto Contador.
The Frenchman found himself outnumbered by the Dutch team, but still managed to use his sole teammate to full advantage in the sprint.
"Against three Rabobank riders [Flecha, Langeveld and Garate], it wasn't an easy task," Chavanel said. "In a small group, I'm quite fast but I couldn't win by myself. Kevin [Seeldrayers] did a fantastic job. He brought me back to Flecha's colleague [Langeveld, who had attacked in the last kilometre, ed.]. Then it was another Flecha-Chavanel duel."
While the lead group worked to stay clear in the heavy cross-winds, Contador was on the wrong end of the split and lost more than a minute by the finish. Heinrich Haussler led home the yellow jersey group to retain his green jersey. Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) crossed all mountain tops in first place from the early breakaway and took over the lead in the mountains classification
It's the second year in a row Chavanel has worn the yellow jersey in Paris-Nice – he wore it after stage three last year, too. But this year he wasn't gunning to repeat that experience, but to win a stage. "It was a short experience last year." Chavanel held the lead only for one day before the race ended atop Mont Ventoux last year. Now that he has the lead again, he sees a chance to keep it a few days longer.
"We'll see day by day. I've already checked the profile for the next stages. The climbs aren't impossible and I've already done well on routes like this in the past. Why not try to defend the jersey?"
The bad weather again helped him take the win and the overall. "The way it went, it is normal we take over a minute out of the peloton. It's punches like today you have to deliver." He will see in Lure on Friday the 13th if it will be a lucky day for him in the mountains.
Contador with second scare in two days
Contador may have lost a minute on the day, but still remains in overall contention, now sixth at 1:03. He described the rainy day as a typical stage in Paris-Nice. "It was very windy in the end, when the sprinters's teams took over. At that moment we lost the coordination within our team a bit. Without the team's coordination, it is much harder to fight in conditions like these."
Once Rabobank hit the front Contador was in the fourth group on the road. He knew he had to do something. "I saw I had no teammates. The situation was very difficult, but I saw there was a short steep slope coming up and I accelerated." Contador looked good on the uphill, but closing the gap proved to be hard. He received some help from Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) to reach the group ahead. "This was the only possibility for me to save the race," Contador said.
Contador was not sure about the overall anymore. "To make up one minute on a rider like Chavanel, who also is on great form, is difficult. The same is true for Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank), but there is still a lot of road left. Looking at the classification things could have been worse."
Five go away early
The break of the day formed after a little more than 10 kilometres of racing. Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Maciej Bodnar (Liquigas), Jürgen Roelandts (Silence-Lotto), Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) and Tom Veelers (Skil-Shimano) rode ahead on the rainy day. They gained a maximum of seven minutes and were able to ride over all three classified climbs ahead of the peloton.
Each time over the category three ranked climbs, Augé gathered four points as he was the first cresting the top. The 12 points gave him the polka dot jersey of best climber.
Rabobank hit the front with 50 kilometres to go with five riders and a few kilometres later the elastic snapped. 20 men, including five from Rabobank, were ahead of the peloton. Behind the cross winds split up the field in several pieces and race leader Contador found himself further back than he wanted. Without the help of his teammates he sprinted to the third group on the road, some twenty seconds behind the Rabobank group. Cadel Evans was also further back.
The relentless work from Rabobank and Quick Step had two effects. For one the quintet on the front was caught, with Bodnar dropping back even before the junction. The other four held their ground. The second effect was reduction of this new lead group to ten riders. Roelandts, Augé, Le Mevel and Veelers from the initial break, as well as Juan Antonio Flecha, Juan Manuel Garate and Sebastian Langeveld from Rabobank, Sylvain Chavanel and Kevin Seeldrayers from Quick Step and Marcus Burghardt (Team Columbia - Highroad).
Haussler was one of those who dropped out of the 20-man lead group. He waited for the Contador group, which was only 20 seconds behind at this point. But after fruitless chasing the organisation of the group went down the drain. Holding half a minute for a dozen kilometres the lead eventually extended to 50 seconds. In the end the difference was 1:09.
The scenario in the front would have been ideal for Burghardt, as he didn't have to work among the Rabobank and Quick Step teams and he was fresher than sprinter Roelandts. But Burghardt ran into some bad luck in form of a flat tyre with five kilometres to go.
Rabobank sent Langveld on the attack just before the group passed the one kilometre to go sign. He was quickly marked by Chavanel. The two were a bit ahead of the others but it all came back once they hit the finishing straight. Flecha tried to launch the sprint early, and once again it was Chavanel who got onto his wheel and was able to come around for the victory.
Wednesday's stage travels from Vichy to Saint-Étienne over 173.5km and six category three climbs.
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