Alberto Contador (Astana) crushed his opposition on the difficult mountain top finish in La Montagne de Lure to take over the yellow jersey from Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step). Contador left his last companions, Luis León Sánchez and Fränk Schleck, less than five kilometres from the top and stormed to the finish 59 seconds ahead of them.
Chavanel lost almost two minutes on the snow-covered mountain and fell to third in the general classification, while Sánchez rode himself into second overall, 1:13 behind Contador.
For Contador the hard work of the team had paid off. "We took control today. It was a day to make a difference." Contador had lots of opponents on the last climb, and not just from his fellow cyclists. "Luis León Sánchez and Fränk Schleck were very strong – we also had a headwind."
It wasn't only today's stage that had gotten to Contador. "This has been a very difficult Paris-Nice, with the wind and the rain in the beginning. Everyone suffered – me too."
But Contador didn't show the strain. Following wheels when things heated up with 10 kilometres to go, Contador tested his opponents once or twice before launching off the front. Only Schleck was able to follow suit initially, with Antonio Colom (Team Katusha) joining in for a bit.
Luis León Sánchez then made his way across to Schleck and was able to move into second overall through his efforts but thinks he is too far behind Contador to win on Sunday. "To win the final classification is no longer within my reach but there are still two important and very beautiful stages left and we will try to win one of them."
Normally known as a punchy climber who excels on shorter climbs, the Spaniard worked hard over the winter to improve his sustained climbing abilities. "What I did today is a big step in that direction," Sánchez said. "But there is nothing to do because as soon as the road starts climbing, Contador is really at a higher level than everybody else. I will keep on working to be better and better in the mountain hoping to come each time closer."
With less than five kilometres from the top Contador accelerated again, leaving the others behind. Colom, hurting from his efforts to bridge to the lead group, was dropped behind while Luis Leon Sanchez joined up with Schleck to help chase, but the two were never able to return to the flying Spaniard.
Regardless, Schleck was happy to be in fourth, with the podium in sight. His Directeur Sportif, Kim Andersen, was also happy with the team work. "We are certainly pleased with today's outcome with three men in the top ten, so we now lead the stage team standing. Fränk was in an excellent position, and Jens showed great form when he attacked into the headwind on the mountain. Now we have a podium in sight, so tomorrow we will attack again."
Contador didn't need the extra motivation of Anderson's words. "Tomorrow is another race," he said, already thinking about the stage from Manosque to Fayence with nine classified climbs.
Tony Martin (Team Columbia - Highroad) kept his polka dot jersey, thanks to topping the Côte des Mourres in first. He added four more points and leads with 47 points, ahead of Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux) with 32 points. Roy gained points on the first two climbs by making the first break. Thomas Voeckler (BBox Bouygues Telecom) was in second before the stage, but sustained a broken collarbone in a crash during the early part of the stage and was forced to abandon.
Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre - N.G.C.) held on to his points jersey by a single point ahead of Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam).
The race started out fast, with five riders going clear inside the first ten kilometres – Mickaël Delage (Silence-Lotto), Javier Aramendia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Romain Feillu (Agritubel), Niki Terpstra (Team Milram) and Cyril Lemoine (Skil-Shimano). They were joined by Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sébastien Turgot (BBox Bouygues Telecom). Later Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux), yesterday's stage winner, joined in to form the nine-man break of the day.
Columbia doesn't like break set-up
The group's maximum advantage was around six and a half minutes, but Columbia-Highroad did not like Roy in the break, as he threatened Martin's polka-dot jersey. Roy was allowed to take maximum points on the first two category two climbs. He was then 11 points behind in the mountains ranking, but had to sit up under the Columbia pressure. The other eight continued towards the next mountains, the lead hovering around the two-minute mark.
Two climbs later it was all over for the front group, although Feillu still put up a fight just before the sprint in Forcalquier, less than 30 km from the finish. That spoiled it for Haussler, who came close to Feillu, but couldn't catch him. That gave Haussler two instead three points. Lorenzetto received one point for third and so was hanging on with a one-point advantage.
Astana controlled the peloton until the final climb, with one exception. Martin was allowed to go ahead and get four more points for the mountains classification. That was enough for the tired German, who dropped back before things got serious on the final climb. With only seven places awarded points on the finish, there was no point for him to try to ride hard.
On the lower part of the final climb, things started to fall apart, with the front group getting smaller in every switchback. Most of the favourites were there, but David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream) and Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) were two of the best placed riders who fell out of the top 15. Garate had been in second, only six seconds behind Chavanel, while Millar was in seventh, 14 seconds in arrears. Both would lose over five minutes by the day's end.
It didn't take long until Jens Voigt (Team Saxo Bank) attacked, with 11 km to go. In the group of favourites things started to move, with David Lopez Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne) changing the pace, followed by Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence-Lotto). That was the signal for Contador to move, with Schleck in tow.
The duo quickly caught Voigt, who tried to help his teammate Schleck, but was dropped and replaced by Antonio Colom (Team Katusha) on the front. Chavanel was in the group of nine riders behind, initially still looking good. But the group disintegrated, with Chavanel on the wrong end. He fought hard but kept losing time to Contador and eventually his 36-second lead on GC.
Motivated by the prospects of yellow, Contador dropped Schleck and Colom to solo away for the win.
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