Wednesday’s weather-shortened stage into Aurillac was a tale of the oldest and the youngest at the 68th Paris-Nice.
The pack’s oldest rider, Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), proved he’s still got the knockout punch at 38 by following a searing attack by Alberto Contador (Astana) over a short, but very steep second-category climb with 3km to go to sneak into the yellow jersey.
And the youngest rider, 20-year-old Peter Sagan (Liquigas), proved he can tangle with the big boys by winning out of a six-man group just a day after finishing second into Limoges.
“There’s a difference of 18 years between us,” a happy Voigt pointed out after taking the yellow jersey from Lars Boom (Rabobank). “If there’s a white jersey for younger riders, I think there should be a jersey for riders over 35. Call it the maillot gris.”
There might not be a gray jersey yet, but Voigt takes the yellow jersey in an explosive stage that saw the surprising Sagan take the young rider’s white jersey as well as the green points jersey.
“I am very satisfied with how I am performing so far at the ProTour races,” said Sagan, who slots into second overall six seconds back. “I was helping (Roman) Kreuziger on the final climb and when I looked back, he wasn’t there, so I just kept following the others. I got into front position with 200 meters to go and was able to win. I am very happy.”
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) finished 38th in a big group at six seconds back and slots into seventh overall at 24 seconds back to keep alive his podium chances. David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) was 28th in the same group to remain fourth at 12 seconds back.
Sagan makes his splash
Sagan got the win Wednesday a day after losing to William Bonnet (BBox) in Tuesday’s stage, proving that the quiet kid from Slovakia is the real deal.
At 20, Sagan looks to be built from the mold of Edvald Boasson Hagen, an aggressive rider with prolific skills. He won the 2008 world junior mountain bike title, second in cyclocross and fourth in the road race. Sagan was fifth at 10 seconds off the pace in Sunday’s prologue.
Sagan was able to follow the heavy shots fired by Contador, Nicholas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) over the day’s final climb, revealing that he has the legs to be able to get over climbs and challenge for sprints out of smaller groups.
He out-kicked Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), last year’s elite world’s bronze medalist and no slouch in a bunch sprinter, either.
“I am a not pure sprinter, but I am feeling strong and when I made it with the front group, I wanted to try to win,” Sagan said. “This is an important race and I am a young rider. Now I will try to help Roman win Paris-Nice. I don’t know how far I can do, but I am feeling comfortable racing at this level.”
Cold and snow in Saint-Junien prompted race officials to reduce the stage by 50km. A three-man breakaway was reeled in just at the base of the final climb after hard work by Caisse d’Epargne to try to set up Luís León Sánchez for the win.
Roche and Martin took the early stabs up the climb, gapping overnight leader Boom. The former world cyclocross champion couldn’t match the pace and slipped to sixth at 20 seconds back.
“I am not too disappointed because I could feel yesterday that I was struggling a little bit on the climbs,” Boom said. “After winning the prologue, every day has been a bonus in yellow. I knew I would lose it tomorrow anyway. I am very content with how this race has gone and now I going to be stronger for the spring classics.”
With Boom out of the picture, Voigt was poised to take yellow. It was Contador, however, who opened up the blistering attack that dropped GC rivals Sánchez, Leipheimer and Kreuziger.
After shaking off a crash in Monday’s first stage, Contador wanted to make sure he was at the sharp end of the action coming into a fast finish into Aurillac.
“There was a small climb on the end, almost anything, just over a kilometer, but is that the cold hurt and the group has been cut in several parts,” Contador said. “The legs responded quite well for now and I hope tomorrow they will be good too. Rather than try, was a matter to avoid lost time.”
Contador wasn’t able to sprint for the win because he clipped out of his pedal after touching Martin in the final charge to the line. The race jury judged there was enough of a gap and gave Contador two seconds slower than the leading three, meaning he only gained four seconds on the Sánchez-Leipheimer group.
Rodríguez took second on the stage and slotted into ninth at 28 seconds back. Nicknamed “Purito,” he twice won the Montelupeone climb at Tirreno-Adriatico, but decided to race Paris-Nice when the climb wasn’t included in this year’s edition of the Italian race.
“My goal here is to win a stage and try to finish on the podium. I couldn’t win today, but I am content because the sensations were good,” he said. “I am also happy about the progress I’ve made in time trialing. I gave it a good try in the prologue. Now I will try again to win a stage on Saturday, which is a good route for me.”
Voigt into yellow
When Contador made his move, Leipheimer was well-protected by RadioShack and the team helped reduce the gap coming into the finale.
“We had three riders to help get Levi in position for the climb and I was right behind him so no one could come over the top,” said Chris Horner. “We helped to bring Levi to the front group. Tomorrow’s going to be the big day. I’m so far back now on GC, I will just help Levi. I had a crash on the first day and the next morning I felt like I was beaten up by a baseball bat.”
Sensing that Boom was on the ropes, Voigt had the legs to follow Contador and make contact with the leading six. Those few seconds helped him move into the yellow jersey.
“It was good for me to be with that group because I gained a few seconds on the others. I was really suffering to try to stay with Contador when he attacked. He is impressive,” Voigt said. “Tomorrow will be very important and we’ll see how I can do on Mende.”
Voigt bounced back from his horrific crash in last year’s Tour de France, already returning to competition last year at the Tour of Missouri. This year, he’s been racing steady at Tour Down Under, Mallorca Challenge and Ruta del Sol.
His goal for the season is to get back to the Tour de France.
“I hope that Bjarne (Riis) picks me, because it might be my last Tour,” Voigt said. “I am 38 and there are some younger guys coming up. I’d like to be able to make it to the Champs-Elysees and take a lap of honor and say, ‘Merci, Tour, se va bien.’”
Finishing strong at Paris-Nice would go a long way toward securing a spot on Saxo Bank’s Tour nine.
1. Peter Sagan (Slovakia), Liquigas
2. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spain), Katusha
3. Nicolas Roche (Ireland), AG2R
4. Jens Voigt (Germany), Saxo Bank
5. Tony Martin (Germany), HTC-Columbia
Top ten GC:
1. Jens Voigt (G), Saxo Bank, 12:40:26
2. Peter Sagan (Svk), Liquigas, at 0:06
3. Luis Leon Sanchez (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:09
4. David Millar (G￼, Garmin, at 0:12
5. Robert Kreuziger (Cz), Liquigas, at 0:14
6. Lars Boom (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:20
7. Alberto Contador (Sp), Astana, at 0:20
8. Levi Leipheimer (USA), RadioShack, at 0:24
9. Joaquim Rodriguez (Sp), Katusha, at 0:28
10. Xavier Tondo (Sp), Cervelo TestTeam, at 0:28