Live coverage of stage 4 of Paris-Nice, 204 kilometres from Varennes-sur-Allier to the Croix de Chaubouret.
97km remaining from 204km
As we pick up the action with a shade under 100 kilometres remaining, a three-man break featuring Antoine Duschesne (Europcar), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Chris Anker Sørensen (Tinkoff-Saxo) holds a lead of 6:30 over the peloton.
The trio forged clear inside the opening five kilometres and quickly established a substantial lead. By the day's first climb, the category three Cote de Rigon, they had an advantage of 7:15 over the bunch.
De Gendt led Duschesne and Sørensen over both the Cheval Rigon and the Col du Beau Louis, and after 50 kilometres, the gap stood at 8 minutes.
88km remaining from 204km
There are eight climbs in total on today's stage, with no fewer than six crammed into the final 65 kilometres of racing. For now, our three leaders are on the long, flat sector that precedes that grand finale, and their lead drops to 5:50 as they pass through Salt-en-Donzy.
The six climbs still to come are the category 3 Côte de Saint-Bonnet-les-Oules (2.8km-long at an average gradient of 3.7%); the category 3 Côte de Saint-Héand (1km at 5.1%), the category 2 Côte de La Gimond (1.8km at 6.5%); the category 2 Col de la Gachet (5km at 4.4%), the category 3 Côte de la Croix Blanche (1.8km at 4.9%) and then the final haul to the finish atop the category 1 Croix de Chaubouret (10km at 6.7%).
The Croix de la Chaubouret featured on the parcours of the tough stage 12 time trial around Saint-Etienne at the 1997 Tour de France. Jan Ullrich was quickest at the summit and then proceeded to catch and pass his three-minute man Richard Virenque on the plunge back into Saint-Etienne to all but seal overall victory with more than a week of the race still to come.
80km remaining from 204km
The Astana squad of Fabio Aru are leading the chase at the head of the peloton, having realised, one imagines, that the Orica-GreenEdge team of Michael Matthews have no real interest in trying to bring back the escapees. The gap stands at 5:30.
Aru was lying 62nd overall and 34 seconds down this morning, but today's stage ought to bring some definition to the general classification and see the contenders for final victory come to the fore. The upper reaches of GC looked like this after yesterday's stage:
1 Michael Matthews (Aus) Orica GreenEdge 14:25:27
2 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx - Quick-Step 0:00:01
3 Rohan Dennis (Aus) BMC Racing Team
4 John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Giant-Alpecin 0:00:03
5 Tony Martin (Ger) Etixx - Quick-Step 0:00:08
6 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Astana Pro Team 0:00:11
7 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) IAM Cycling
8 Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin 0:00:14
9 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
10 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team
11 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha 0:00:15
12 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team
13 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky 0:00:16
14 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo 0:00:17
15 Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Lampre-Merida
16 Gorka Izagirre (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:19
17 Bob Jungels (Lux) Trek Factory Racing
18 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal
19 Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) Trek Factory Racing
20 Tom Jelte Slagter (Ned) Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling Team
69km remaining from 204km
Duschesne, De Gendt and Sørensen are approaching the third category Saint-Bonnet-les-Oules and the recommencement of hostilities. They still have 5:10 in hand over the peloton.
De Gendt leads the break over the top of the climb to edge closer to divesting his fellow countryman Philippe Gilbert of the polka dot jersey.
62km remaining from 204km
There is scarcely any respite after the climb. Indeed, from here, the road essentially keeps on going upwards, towards the category 3 Côte de Saint-Héand (1km at 5.1%). The peloton follows at 5:05.
58km remaining from 204km
Astana and Orica-GreenEdge have representatives sitting on the front of the peloton, but for now there is no real urgency in the chase and they are happy simply to keep tabs on the escapees and keep the gap at a shade under the five-minute mark.
54km remaining from 204km
De Gent, Sørensen and Duschesne hit the lower slopes of the category 2 Côte de La Gimond (1.8km at 6.5%) with a lead of 4:35 over the peloton. De Gendt's pace-making is proving difficult for Duschesne to follow and he has been distanced by his companions.
Chris Anker Sørensen triggers a diplomatic incident by trying to pip De Gendt to the points atop the Côte de La Gimond. De Gendt holds him off, but he turns, glowers and then accelerates as the descent begins by way of retribution.
There's been an injection of pace of sorts in the main peloton, and some riders are already being jettisoned off the back on the Côte de La Gimond. There is scope for them to latch back on over the top, but it's an ill augury for what is to follow.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) clips off the front of the peloton to pick up the points for fourth place over the top of the climb, though he looks destined to lose that polka dot jersey to De Gendt this afternoon.
48km remaining from 204km
Duchesne has been dropped definitively by De Gendt and Sorsensen, and the Canadian is caught in the no-man's land between the break and the peloton.
46km remaining from 204km
Back in the main peloton, meanwhile, the Ag2r-La Mondiale team have seized the initiative and begun forcing on the front of the bunch in the service of Jean-Christophe Peraud and, in particular, Romain Bardet.
Ag2r-La Mondiale's race has been wholly overshadowed by Lloyd Mondory's positive test for EPO in an out of competition test, the squad's third doping case in little more than two years. Ahead of yesterday's stage, Samuel Dumoulin - son-in-law of team manager Vincent Lavenu - read a statement on behalf of his teammates outside the Ag2r bus, while the team's management has also been explaining its own internal testing programme, which it had reintroduced in 2013.
43km remaining from 204km
Orica-GreenEdge have joined Ag2r in driving on the front and the peloton has broken in two. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) are among those caught on the wrong side of the split.
41km remaining from 204km
The Cannondale-Garmin team of Andrew Talansky have also joined in the forcing at the head of the bunch. A delegation from Tinkoff-Saxo is desperately trying to organise the pursuit behind to bring Majka back into contention.
40km remaining from 204km
Duchesne, incidentally. has been caught by the peloton, which is now 2:40 down on De Gendt and Sorensen, and closing rapidly.
Lotto-Soudal are very active in helping Tinkoff-Saxo at the head of that second peloton, suggesting that Tim Wellens and Tony Gallopin were also caught on the wrong foot.
35km remaining from 204km
Lotto's efforts seem to have been enough to weld the two groups back together, but positioning is going to be crucial on the undulating approach to the Croix de Chaubouret. The break's lead, meanwhile, is down to 2:20.
32km remaining from 204km
Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Arnaud Démare and Mario Costa (Lampre-Merida) are part of a small group of riders that has again been spat out the back of the peloton as Samuel Dumoulin continues to set the tempo at the front.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), meanwhile, looks very comfortable in the yellow jersey, tucked in just behind the Ag2r squad. Matthews, of course, won atop Montecassino at the Giro d'Italia last year, but in theory the 10km-long Croix de Chaubouret ought to be too tough for him to hang on.
32km remaining from 204km
At the foot of the category 2 Col de la Gachet, Rafal Majka suffers a mechanical problem and is forced to change his bike. He's already making his way through the convoy but he's going to use up a lot of energy in getting back on.
Cannondale-Garmin, Sky and Astana are all well-placed near the head of the bunch in support of Talansky, Aru and Richie Porte, respectively.
30km remaining from 204km
De Gendt and Sørensen continue to beat their path at the head of the race. They're a kilometre from the summit of the Gachet with a lead of 1:50 still in hand over the peloton.
More and more riders are being shed from the back of the bunch, with Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar) among those to sit up. Majka is still battling his way back up to the bunch, which seems to be constantly just around the next corner.
De Gendt leads over the top of the Gachet to further pad out his virtual lead in the mountains classification.
Gilbert leads the peloton over the top, 1:30 behind, before swinging over and allowing Ag2r to take up the reins once again. A delegation from Movistar has also moved towards the front over the summit of the Gachet.
Next on the agenda for the two escapees is the category 3 Côte de la Croix Blanche (1.8km at 4.9%), before an intermediate sprint at Saint-Chamond that will pay tribute to the late, Andrey Kivilev, who was tragically killed after crashing there during the 2003 edition of Paris-Nice.
25km remaining from 204km
De Gendt again leads over the summit of the Croix Blanche, while Gilbert hoovers up the point for third place, 1:15 behind.
Etixx-QuickStep take command of the peloton on the descent of the Croix Blanche, with world champion Michal Kwiatkowski perched comfortably in third wheel.
22km remaining from 204km
Etixx-QuickStep's pressing brings the break's lead down to just a minute. De Gendt and Sorensen will do well to survive as far as the base of the final climb at this rate.
18km remaining from 204km
A most untimely pucncture for Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin). He takes a wheel from Sebastien Langeveld and gives chase.
Philippe Gilbert has been sprinting for third place at the mountains primes all afternoon, and perhaps out of habit as much as out of ambition, he does the same at the sprint at Saint-Chamond. The bunch is now just 25 seconds behind Sorensen and De Gendt.
15km remaining from 204km
Talansky latches back on to the rear of the peloton after a frantic chase. He has five kilometres to make his way towards the head of the bunch before the start of the expected fireworks on the Croix de Chaubouret.
14km remaining from 204km
Sorensen and De Gendt congratulate one another on their day's work off the front of the bunch. They still have 20 seconds in hand but they are well aware that the game is just about up.
13km remaining from 204km
Gruppo compatto. De Gendt and Sorensen are swept up by the peloton on the false flat before the start of the final climb proper.
BMC directeur sportif Yvon Ledanois told us last week that Rohan Dennis would not be in the overall shake up at this edition of Paris-Nice and so it proves. The world hour record holder is dropped from the peloton as the pace continues to ratchet upwards ahead of the final climb.
12km remaining from 204km
Etixx-QuickStep continue to set the pace but Astana and Sky are marshalling Aru and Porte forwards. The yellow jersey Matthews remains well-placed, too, in a peloton that is down to 60 riders or so.
10km remaining from 204km
The peloton hits the foot of the Croix de Chaubouret, 10 kilometres of climbing at an average gradient of 6.7%.
It's a nervous peloton at the foot of the climb and Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) is a faller. The Breton appeared to be taken out by Nelson Oliveira and he sits on the roadside awaiting treatment.
Ag2r-La Mondiale set the tempo at the base of the climb, and Rafal Majka is among the riders distanced on the early slopes.
8km remaining from 204km
Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) accelerates on the front and opens a small gap, with no immediate response from the peloton.
Majka, meanwhile, seems to have blown completely. The Pole has been distanced from the peloton and is making his way up the climb in installments.
8km remaining from 204km
Nicolas Roche Team Sky are on the front of the reduced peloton, gradually pegging back Tiralongo, the Sicilian veteran who has become Aru's training partner in the past couple of seasons. The pair have spent lengthy spells together at altitude at Sestriere.
7km remaining from 204km
Tiralongo continues his lone assault, just around 30 metres clear of the peloton, but he won't last much longer alone out there.
6km remaining from 204km
Sky peg back Tiralongo as Lars Peter Nordhaug continues to set a brisk tempo at the front of the bunch, which now contains around 50 riders.
Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, Tejay van Garderen and Fabio Aru are all well-placed near the front, following Nordhaug's pace-making.
6km remaining from 204km
Nordhaug's tempo is proving too much for the overall leader Matthews. The Australian loses contact with the bunch and his spell in the yellow jersey is at an end.
Michal Kwiatkowski was just one second off Matthews this morning and as it stands, he is poised to regain the yellow jersey - though, there are, of course, another six kilometres of climbing still to come.
5km remaining from 204km
Nordhaug is still dictating terms on the front, ahead of Sky's Nicolas Roche, Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte.
5km remaining from 204km
Others still in this leading group include Simon Yates, Dayer Quintana, Simon Spilak and Romain Bardet.
Nordhaug swings over and now Nicolas Roche takes up the baton for Team Sky. Jakob Fuglsang and Aru sit just behind them, followed by Kwiatkowski. Rui Costa, Tim Wellens and Tejay van Garderen are also placed near the front.
4km remaining from 204km
Tony Martin is dropped from the rear of this ever-dwindling leading group. As is so often the case with Team Sky, the selection is being made from the back, with riders being shed one by one.
3km remaining from 204km
Roche is still in command and that leading group is down to just 30 or so riders.
Roche's shoulders are beginning to rock but others are suffering more - Talansky and Wilco Kelderman are losing contact at the back.
2km remaining from 204km
Geraint Thomas (Sky) accelerates and tears his way clear of the front group.
Fuglsang comes across to Thomas, and this Astana-Sky tandem has a small lead over the lone chaser Simon Spilak (Katusha).
2km remaining from 204km
Spilak claws his way almost to within touching distance of Thomas and Fuglsang.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) sets off in pursuit of the leaders, tracking a move from Ruben Fernandez (Movistar), Then, bizarrely, Fenandez looks over his shoulder and falls off, losing all hopes of a big result.
2km remaining from 204km
Porte, Bardet and Kwiatkowski are part of a group that punches their way across to van Garderen's wheel. They are all just around 100 metres behind the three leaders Fuglsang, Thomas and Spilak.
There are ten riders or so in that van Garderen group and they are struggling to strike a working agreement. This is good news for Thomas, Spilak and Fuglsang, who are collaborating well.
1km remaining from 204km
Kwiatkowski hits the front of the chasing group, eager to ensure that he will take the yellow jersey tonight.
1km remaining from 204km
Porte accelerates and brings the chasers across to Thomas, Fuglsang and Spilak.
Porte keeps going on reaching the leaders. The only man who can follow his pace-setting is Geraint Thomas, and the two Sky men are pulling away, seemingly in a race of their own,
Porte and Thomas have opened a sizeable lead. The men in black won't be brought back.
Richie Porte wins stage 4 of Paris-Nice ahead of his Sky teammate Geraint Thomas.
Michal Kwiatkowski takes third place, 8 seconds down.
Fuglsang came home in fourth alongside Kwiatkowski, while van Garderen came home in fifth, 17 seconds down. Rui Costa led home a group featuring Aru, Rafael Valls and Tony Gallopin that crossed the line 24 seconds down.
Michal Kwiatkowski moves back into the yellow jersey, just one second ahead of Richie Porte and three up on Thomas. Van Garderen lies in 4th overall, some 27 seconds back.
1 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky 5:18:39
2 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
3 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx - Quick-Step 0:00:08
4 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team
5 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:17
6 Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida 0:00:24
7 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal
8 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team
9 Rafael Valls Ferri (Spa) Lampre-Merida
10 Simon Spilak (Slo) Team Katusha
General classification after stage 4:
1 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx - Quick-Step 19:44:11
2 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky 0:00:01
3 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky 0:00:03
4 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:27
5 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team 0:00:32
6 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal 0:00:38
7 Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida 0:00:41
8 Gorka Izagirre (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:44
9 Tiago Machado (Por) Team Katusha 0:00:50
10 Rafael Valls Ferri (Spa) Lampre-Merida 0:00:51
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