Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne) stormed to a solo victory in the penultimate stage of the 2009 Paris-Nice, taking the yellow jersey off the shoulders of favourite Alberto Contador (Astana). Stunning attacks in the final kilometres in an elite front group of six men tumbled the overall classification, with Contador losing almost three minutes.
Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) put in a brilliant ride on a tough day with nine classified climbs, and moved himself into second overall, 1:09 behind Sánchez. Thanks to his fourth place finish on the stage, the Frenchman moved ahead of Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre-NGC) to take the green jersey for the points classification.
Sánchez could barely walk to the podium after the stage, suffering from cramps after his 17-kilometre solo escape. But the Spaniard was pleased to receive the yellow jersey. "I really want to thank my team today. Yesterday was our toughest day, but today it was better."
Sánchez will go into the final stage of Paris-Nice with the confidence of a rider who won the same stage in the 2008 edition. The Spaniard was pleased to find a selective few stages leading into the final day, which passes over three category one climbs before plunging down into Nice. "I was definitely looking forward to the medium and high mountains, where you have to be really strong."
In his victory moments, Sánchez had kind words for his main rival Contador, whom he still considers a great champion. "It is too bad for him, he had a jour sans. I hope he can recover well."
Sánchez may have been one of the best prepared riders for the stage into the hilltop town of Fayence. "I have done a similar stage in the Tour Méditerranéen and last week I was training here."
Even though he has a solid lead on the overall classification, the Caisse d'Epargne rider expects a tough final day. "The team is very motivated and we want to continue like today. We know that winning Paris-Nice will be difficult, but still, our chances are good."
A visibly drained Contador was helped from his bike by his team soigneur after the finish. "Today has been a very hard day, the Astana rider admitted. He said he had a hunger knock in the finale and could not answer the attack of Sánchez.
"The break did not go until kilometre 65, and before then it was just chaos, which made me work from the start. That's where I was hurt. The race was very fast, and I forgot to eat and drink enough. At 40 km to go I was alone and though I was answering all the attacks well, at 15 km to my body was completely empty. I was left without any strength. From this moment the goal was just to get to the finish."
Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) moved onto a podium spot in the overall, by finishing in third, sandwiched between Colom and Chavanel. His directeur sportif Kim Andersen was pleasantly surprised with the day.
"We most certainly got value for our money today, and the stage shows that anything can happen, and no one has won until the very last stage is over." Andersen noted that Caisse d'Epargne has a stronger team than Contador's Astana. "It is probably better at controlling the peloton, so we must secure the place on the podium by staying in front and possibly engage in a breakaway."
Antonio Colom (Team Katusha) was one of the most aggressive riders in the finale, netting him second place on the day. "I tried several times to get away from the break group, but they always brought me back. Then Sánchez countered and the others didn't follow him." Once he knew Sánchez would stay away, he changed tactics. "I concentrated on the sprint for second. I have a slight cold and yesterday I had some bronchial problems, but today I was feeling much better."
Colom moved up to sixth and is 2:16 behind Sánchez in the GC. "I hope to be just as good in the final stage tomorrow," he said.
A climb to start with
The race started off with the first of nine categorised climbs after only two kilometres. It was Tony Martin (Team Columbia - Highroad) to get more points for his jersey, followed by David Moncoutié (Cofidis, le crédit en ligne) and Matthieu Ladagnous (Française des Jeux).
Next up was the sprint, which was also a tight race heading into stage seven. Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre - N.G.C.) led the points classification with one point over Haussler and three points over Contador and Chavanel. Haussler won ahead of Chavanel, with Chris Sørensen (Team Saxo Bank) getting third and preventing Lorenzetto from getting points. That put Haussler in the virtual lead with 65 points, ahead of Lorenzetto (63) and Chavanel (61).
Martin also was ahead at the second climb of the day, leading Martin Velits (Team Milram) and Sørensen over the top. In that climb Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was in trouble and abandoned the race. He hurt his knee in the second stage and yesterday's efforts were too much for him. His inflamed knee had no desire to do seven more climbs.
There were a flurry of attacks until the break of the day was finally established after more than 60 km of racing. Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Sébastien Joly (Française des Jeux), Karsten Kroon (Team Saxo Bank), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis, le crédit en ligne), Alexandre Pichot (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Joan Horrach (Team Katusha), Maxime Bouet (Agritubel) and Martin Velits (Team Milram) were the lucky ones.
The break covered the côte de Taradeau (km 96.0), the côte des Tuillières (km 110.0), the col de Saint-Andrieux (km 118.5) and the col du Défens (km 126.0), with various riders taking the various points.
Shortly after the sprint in Fayence (Stéphane Augé ahead of Roman Kreuziger and Christophe Riblon) the race started in earnest. In the front group Martin Velits (Team Milram) attacked to get a head start for the category one col de Bourigaille.
Behind, the favourites moved into position to battle for the overall over the longest climb of the day, a 10.4 km drag race. A group of eight riders with Contador, Schleck, Voigt, Chavanel, Sanchez, Colom, Seeldraeyers and Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), moved clear of the peloton.
Repeated attacks on the climb by Colom shattered the group, but the accelerations did little to prevent Velits from staying clear over the top. Behind the Milram rider the peloton was in tatters, and Colom, Contador, Sanchez and Schleck formed a four-person pursuit group. Evans led the peloton less than half a minute behind.
Schleck was dropped from the Contador group, and when Velits was caught, another attack by Colom ended the Milram rider's time at the front of the race.
Over the côte de Mons, Sanchez led Contador and Colom, while Schleck, 17 seconds behind, found a companion in his teammate Jens Voigt. Chavanel joined them, too, and after a few kilometres of furious chasing, there was a group of six on the front.
Stage 8 - March 15: Nice - Nice, 119km
The final stage tomorrow in Nice will have to decide the winner of the prestigious stage race. Three more category one climbs will test the riders' mettle and sort out who is the deserving champion of this year's Paris-Nice.
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