Stage 4: Vichy - Saint-Étienne
Chavanel holds on by the skin of the teeth
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin - Slipstream) took a brilliant solo win when he attacked out of the break of the day and soloed away for the final 20 kilometres. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) was attacked by Alberto Contador (Astana) on the final climb of the day, but held on to his yellow jersey by six seconds over Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank).
Vande Velde rode across the line swinging his arms in dedication to his daughter Madeline, who was born last month. "I have seen other rides do it and it was special to be able to do this myself," he said. The moment made up for the nail-biting final, when Vande Velde rode solo towards the line, but received news that Contador had attacked. "I got a little bit nervous then," he said.
Chavanel admitted that he felt yesterday's efforts. "It is always hard to race a day after a great ride. Yesterday I left a lot of energy on the road, so today in the final I was a bit spent." But he was in a decent mood after the race despite the time loss. "I keep the jersey, that is really satisfying for me."
Contador attacked hard on the Côte de Rochetaillée, a five-kilometre climb that averages just over four percent. He quickly gained time on the peloton, with Chavanel visibly suffering to regain control of the race. "I didn't try to follow Contador. When he attacks, he really accelerates – I was afraid of putting myself too much in the 'red'."
Contador was 19 seconds behind Vande Velde over the top, about seven kilometres from the finish, and about 25 seconds ahead of the Chavanel group. Chavanel described the tough KOM moment. "There was a split over the top and it was really difficult on the descent to get back."
He quickly refuted criticism by the French media that he could have done better today. "I didn't crack mentally, even though I lost a little bit of time in the GC. But I didn't panic." He added that his Paris-Nice isn't over yet. "I will still fight and do the best I can," Chavanel said. He knows who he is up against. "This shows that Contador doesn't just want to give up Paris-Nice like that..."
A break that goes far
The race started out quite hectic, with several attacks. Third-placed Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) was one of those gapped off at 40 seconds, before he caught up again. Mountain leader Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) was also dropped briefly in the earlier part of the race.
After some 70 kilometres, things settled down when the break of the day was established. Vande Velde, Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale), Daniel Moreno (Caisse d'Epargne), Alexandr Kolobnev (Team Saxo Bank), Tony Martin (Team Columbia - Highroad), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) and Xavier Florencio (Cervélo TestTeam) formed a group that never gained more than two minutes over an attentive peloton.
The break was interested in staying away until the finish, so the mountain points were discussed early to avoid confusion. Dumoulin was allowed to take them all. This would take the precious four points each time and keep the jersey on the shoulders of Dumoulin's Cofidis teammate Augé – just about. At the end of the day Dumoulin came within one point of his compatriot.
Flecha's bad day continued as he had to change bikes right when Bouygues Telecom hit the front. The peloton waited a bit, but once Flecha was close to the tail-end, the pace picked up again, causing an immediate split. Flecha spent a lot of energy to regain the peloton, but eventually was ok and finished in the Chavanel group to keep his third place overall.
With a little more than 25km to go, three riders attacked from the peloton, Pierre Rolland (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel) and Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux). When they were closing in, Vande Velde knew what he had to do. Roche tried to counter, but Vande Velde's attack was too strong.
The rest of the break of the day was gobbled up by the French trio on the lower part of the climb, but Contador was the one who got away. Several riders caught him at the bottom of the descent, with Chavanel losing almost 30 seconds against Garate and Contador.
Stage 5 - March 12: Annonay - Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, 204km
Tomorrow the longest stage of the race will bring the riders from Annonay to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc over the course of 204km. The tough ride features seven ranked climbs, including one category one climb and three category two climbs.
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