William Bonnet (Bbox) won a bunch sprint that saw a half-dozen riders hit the deck after colliding with a protective barrier with about 500 meters to go, including André Greipel’s lead-out man Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), French sprinter Jimmy Casper (Saur Sojasun) and Danny Martin (Garmin-Slipstream).
Bonnet came around Peter Sagan (Liquigas) to snag his first major pro win while defending champion Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) crossed the line third to snag the points jersey. Lars Boom (Rabobank) avoided the mayhem and finished safely in the pack to retain the yellow jersey.
“I got on the wheel of Sánchez and I was in good position for the sprint. Luckily, I missed the crash and I was able to come around Liquigas to win,” said Bonnet, 27. “It’s a very big win for me, because I’ve been waiting a long time. I am not a pure sprinter like Cavendish and I worked for Thor (Hushovd) when I was at Crédit Agricole. At this team, I have more chances to play my own card. I’d like to get into the habit of winning.”
Racing in frigid temperatures, the day’s main, four-man breakaway was reeled in with 17km before Cyril Gautier (BBox) attacked on the last of three third-category climbs with 11km to go, but Caisse d’Epargne didn’t let him slip away.
The peloton roared into the final three kilometers and found a tangle of traffic circles, divided roads and two sharp left-handers in the final 1,000 meters. With about 500 meters to go, a rider clipped a plastic-covered hay bale to cause the spill. Casper flipped over his handlebars as a rider went down in front of him.
Bonnet was able to steer clear of trouble to win the most important victory of his career.
“I’ve been close to some big wins (twice second in the 2009 Vuelta a España), so it’s nice to finally win an important race,” Bonnet said. “My next big goal is the classics. Our team won’t have much responsibility, so I am hoping to be able to do something.”
Sánchez moves up, Boom realistic
There were no major shakeups in the overall standings, with Boom holding his narrow, five-second lead to Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank).
Boom finished 73rd with the main pack, but admitted he’s starting to feel the wear and tear of defending the jersey in the brutally cold conditions.
“It was very windy again today and the team did a good job keeping me out of trouble. It was hard for me on that last climb. I was behind the crash and there was room for me to get around without any problem,” Boom said. “I am glad I was able to keep the yellow jersey again today. Maybe we can keep it again tomorrow, but I don’t expect to defend it Thursday. That last climb to Mende will be too hard for me and the differences are small.”
Defending champion Sánchez sensed that the complicated finale played to his favor against the pure sprinters and he tried to surprise with a long sprint and finished third, earning enough points to take the green jersey and bonus seconds to move into third at 10 seconds back.
“I felt very good so I decided to put myself in the sprint to try to win the stage,” Sánchez said. “There was a lot of headwind, so it made it difficult. I have to be satisfied with third place despite the fact that I wasn’t able to finish off the work that my team did all day long. Nevertheless, I am satisfied with how things are going. Now I am third, thanks to the time bonuses, so now I will have to stay focused and try to do things as well as we have so far.”
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), who hit the deck in Monday’s stage, also finished safely in the main pack and remained in eighth overall at 25 seconds back.
Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Astana) was able to avoid trouble for most of the race after crashing with just over 3km to go in Monday’s stage, but his Astana troops hugged the front of the pack to keep Contador and his sore left thigh out of harm’s way. Contador finished 17th in Tuesday’s stage to remain ninth overall at 25 seconds back.
Contador’ luck almost ran out again at the finish on Tuesday, though, when he was caught behind a crash only 500 meters from the line. Contador was delayed, but uninjured and rode slowly to the finish, unconcerned about the time loss, since the accident occurred within the final kilometer of the race and he was credited with the same time as the rest of the field.
“A hard day with a lot of tension,” Contador wrote on Twitter. “My leg didn’t permit me to use my normal pedal stroke but I hope that with (physical therapy) and time, it will get better.”
Contador said he has now gotten beyond the point of thinking about abandoning Paris-Nice this year.
I think today was really the hardest for me,” he said. “I am not going home now. I was able to finish and I am in a good position (on GC), so I’ll continue, for sure.”
Contador said he considers the 38-year-old Voigt to be the biggest overall threat on the road right now.
“He’s the strongest out there right now,” Contador said of Voigt. “He’s the guy I paid most attention to today.”
Mangel makes most of break
After the crash-filled first stage, the peloton was hoping for smoother sailing in the 201km second stage from Contres to Limoges. Sunny skies with a strong northerly wind made for a fast and cold stage, as temperatures hovered around 40F.
It didn’t take long for riders to go on the attack, with Mauro Finetto (Liquigas), Laurent Mangel (Saur Sojasun), Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) and Jens Mouris (Vacansoleil) surged free in the opening five kilometers.
Mangel led the break over the day’s first climb at the Cat. 3 Cote de Saint-Aignan at 15km and the quartet quickly opened a two-minute gap as the day’s main breakaway was set.
A stiff northerly wind pushed the pack south across the rolling terrain at a brisk 48kph toward the hillier final half of the stage. HTC-Columbia took control of the middle part of the stage to keep the breakaway on a three-minute leash.
Mangel, a journeyman pro who joined start-up Saur Sojasun last season, led over the Cat. 3 Cote de Maison Neuve at 156km to secure the climber’s jersey. Rabobank took over the chase in the final two hours to keep Boom in yellow.
Mangel, however, didn’t want to give up, going on a solo flier at 21km to go when the pack pulled within 20 seconds of neutralizing the breakaway to try to grab the day’s final mountain points.
He was caught with 17km to go, just ahead of the Cat. 3 Cole de Nieul, but he pounced out of the pack to take second-place points to secure the polka-dot jersey.
It’s that type of aggressive riding that the small French team will help convince Tour de France organizers when they are handing out racing invitations for July.
The 68th Paris-Nice continues Wednesday with the hilly, six-climb 208km third stage from Saint-Junien to Aurillac. It appears that the roads will be clear of snow and there should not be any route changes, but it will be extremely cold, especially in the final 50km when the course climbs to higher than 600 meters.
Three third-category climbs should send an early breakaway clear in the opening 70km of racing. The first of three second-category climbs comes at 128km, followed by the second at 165km. It’s the third at the Cote de la Martinie (1.1km at 7.2%) with three kilometers that will see some interesting attacks from stage-hunters.
Race organizers say Thursday’s summit finish to Mende looks passable, but there’s more worry about Friday’s climbing stage to Aix-en-Provence. Southern France was hammered with a winter storm Monday, forcing the closure of the French-Spanish border. Ice and snow still clog the highest climbs, including the Cat. 2 Col de Murs.