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Two Thomases take over at Paris-Nice: Voeckler wins out of break, De Gendt back in yellow

2011 Paris-Nice, stage 4. Thomas de Gendt and Francis De Greef
Thomas de Gendt leads breakaway companion Francis De Greef

A day after just falling short in a breakaway effort, French national champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) got in right with victory in Wednesday’s 191km seven-climb fourth stage at Paris-Nice when a four-man breakaway stayed clear of the fast-chasing peloton.

Voeckler and three others had just enough in the tank to fend off the sprinters to contest for the flowers in the rollercoaster stage over a series of short but steep climbs across France’s Beaujolais wine country. Voeckler came off Thomas De Gendt’s wheel to win for the third time in 2011 and claim his first career stage victory at Paris-Nice after several years of knocking on the door at the important, weeklong French race.

“I had been waiting for this since 2003. I was second twice in the past years and I tried again yesterday. Today, I said to myself to try my luck far from the finish as the last climb was far from the line. I had good riders with me. It was close, but it was good enough,” Voeckler said after the stage.

“In the Tour de France 2004, I swapped the French champion jersey for the yellow jersey and it would be good to do it again on Paris-Nice. But with the time trial on Friday I don’t have the slightest chance to win Paris-Nice. I’m already happy to have won a stage for the team. I will try to win another one. Our week is already good.”

De Gendt (Vacansoleil) helped Voeckler set the pace throughout the hard-fought stage and also earned his just rewards, finishing third and scooping up enough time bonuses on the road and at the line to displace overnight leader Matthew Goss and move back into the overall leader’s jersey. Voeckler slots into second, now 10 seconds adrift, with Remi Pauriol (FDJ), second in the stage and the new best climber, third at 16 seconds adrift.

“At first I just wanted to go for the sprint and take seconds, thinking that if Goss was in the peloton, I might take back the jersey. We just kept riding and they could not catch us,” said De Gendt, already a winner in stage 1. “I had good legs, I wanted to ride in the front. I didn’t expect it to go so well. I was riding just for the yellow jersey. If I wanted to win the stage, I would have played it smarter. To take the jersey is also nice. Tomorrow is a hard stage, I have thirty seconds on the first real climbers. Maybe it will be enough, maybe not. I don’t think so …”

The main pack was split over the final climbs and took too long to organize an effective chase in the closing 20km. The gap was under 30 seconds with three kilometers to go, but the breakaway managed to hang on to dispute the stage.

Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) led the bunch across the line at 13 seconds back. With the break staying clear, Goss (HTC-Highroad) did not contest the sprint and slipped to fourth at 21 seconds back.

Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) both went down in a spill coming off a climb midway through the stage, but both were able to finish with the main pack to keep alive their GC options.

Break down to the wire

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) started despite going down in a heavy fall in the final sprint Tuesday, but early in the day, Russian sprinting protégé Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha), who started the day fifth overall, would abandon.

2011 Paris-Nice, stage 4, De Gendt leads the escape
De Gendt joined the escape to garner some sprint bonuses, and he got what he needed to retake the lead.

The terrain was ideal for the head-bangers to give it a shove. Voeckler (Europcar), picking up from his attack Tuesday, was one of the main instigators early in the stage to help forge the main breakaway.

Four others followed, including De Gendt, Rémi Pauriol (FDJ), Remi Di Gregorio (Astana) and Francis De Greef (Omega-Lotto). A few riders failed to bridge out and the race was on.

The leading five quickly opened up a gap of 4:50 at the top of the Cote de Propieres at 56.5km. The lead grew to 5:15 over the Cat. 3 Col des Ecorbans at 65km.

De Gendt was doing a good job picking up intermediate sprints for a total of six seconds and putting pressure on overnight leader Goss to reclaim the “virtual” leader’s jersey by four seconds.

The break was back under two minutes with two more climbs to go, and De Gendt showed no intention of giving up easy. The final climbs split up the peloton as Liquigas-Cannondale upped the chase, shelling riders out the back of the bunch. The gap still stood at 1 minute with 10km to go as the route hit some flats for the final run to the line.

De Greef dropped back and the leading four were hanging on to a 27-second gap with 3km to go. It went down to the wire, with the breakaway crossing the line victorious just a few pedal strokes ahead of the chasing peloton.

Thursday’s stage

The 69th Paris-Nice continues Thursday with another challenging stage that’s sure to hake up the overall standings. Seven climbs are on the menu across the Monts du Lyonnais and the Ardèche, including two first-category climbs. The Cat. 1 Col de la Mure, less than 10km from the finish, makes it Paris-Nice debut, with ramps as steep as 12 percent up the 8km ascent. After reaching the summit, riders will have to negotiate a technical descent and a long false-flat before reaching the finish line at Vernoux-en-Vivarais.