The ‘race to the sun’ proved to be seven days of terrific racing as the European cycling season got off to a flying start.
Prologue – Montfort-l’Amaury – Montfort-l’Amaury, 8 km
The opening dayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prologue started in freezing conditions with a vicious wind severely affecting the riders. RadioshackÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s new signing Gert Steegmans was blown off his bike Ã¢â‚¬â€ a broken collarbone ending his race. British interest centered on Garmin TransitionsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s David Millar and the likeable Scot finished in seventh position after the opening day. Big Dutchman Lars Boom was the early leader for Rabobank with Team Saxo BankÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Jens Voigt, returning to the peloton after an horrific injury in last years Tour De France, in second. The podium was completed by Levi Leipheimer of Team Radioshack with race favourite Contador just six seconds off the pace in fourth.
Stage 1 – Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines – Contres, 201.5 km
Severe winds continued to affect the racing on stage one. The early pace was set by Roman Feillu of Vacansoleil and Albert Timmer of Skil-Shimano. Both these teams are looking for wildcard entries into this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Tour de France so it was in their best interests to get their men up the front. Race leader Boom joined them in the early breakaway and they stayed out in front for around 150 km until the peloton reeled them in. A group of 17 riders then took up the chase and as the finish in Contres approached, teams were trying to get their sprint men into position. With three kilometres to go, Contador was involved in a crash which again seemed to be caused by the side winds that had hampered the whole stage. The Spaniard managed to get back to the chasing pack but could not get to the lead group.
The stage was won by Team SkyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Greg Henderson, Grega Bole of Lampre was second, with Jeremy Galland of Saur-Sojasun third. Two of ContadorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s closest rivals, Alejandro Valverde and defending Paris-Nice champion Luis Leon Sanchez, had finished in the lead group as had Nicholas Roche, son of the great Irish rider Stephen. Lars Boom kept the yellow race leaders jersey, the green pointÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey and the polka dot king of the mountainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey as Contador reflected on a dreadful day.
Stage 2 – Contres – Limoges, 201 km
On stage three, Lauren Mangel of Saur-Sojasun led a group of four into an early breakaway, this also included Mauro Finetto of Liquigas, Jens Mouris of Vacansoleil and Koen de Kort of Skil-Shimano. Mangel was targeting the polka dot jersey and his group stayed out until the final climb of the day over the Cote de Nieul. Job done for Mangel, he could now let the main protagonists take over for the final 10 kilometres into the beautiful city of Limoges. As the riders headed into the final kilometre there was a horrendous crash at the front of the peleton involving five riders. Bole, who had had such a great day on stage one, seemed to clip a piece of road furniture and was sent crashing down. GarminÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Daniel Martin and Saur-SojasunÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Jimmy Casper were also caught up in the melee as French rider William Bonnet took a stage win for BBox Bouygues Telecom.
Peter Sagan, the youngest rider in the peloton was second with Luis-Leon Sanchez third. Sanchez had picked up some valuable bonus seconds in his quest to defend his title. Contador and the other race favouriteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s had avoided any trouble as Boom kept hold of the yellow jersey by just five seconds from Voigt. Leon Sanchez was third with BritainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s David Millar in fourth. Contador was 25 seconds off the pace.
Stage 3 – Saint-Junien – Aurillac, 208 km
Because of snow at the originally-scheduled start in St Junien, the stage was moved by 55 kilometres to St Yrieix-la-Perche. The first intermediate sprint in Coussac-Bonneval was cancelled. Stage three would test the riders’ early season form with six climbs on the route featuring the category two CÃƒÂ´te de la Martinie, just three kilometres from the finish into Aurillac. As the they headed onto the final climb, Nicholas Roche of AG2R led a five man breakaway which featured Peter Sagan, Joaquin Rodriguez of Team Katusha, Tony Martin of HTC Columbia and Contador.
The brilliant Sagan took the stage victory followed by Rodriguez and Roche. Contador had clawed back four seconds from his two main rivals from Caisse DÃ¢â‚¬â„¢Epargne, Alejandro Valverde and Luis-Leon Sanchez. The oldest rider in the race Jens Voigt took over the yellow jersey. Sagan moved up into second spot and took over the green jersey with Luis- Leon Sanchez third. David Millar was fourth with Contador just 20 seconds off the front in seventh. Lauren Mangel wore the polka dot mountainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey.
Stage 4 – Maurs – Mende, 173.5 km
This was the day when the real contenders would have to make their move. A brutal stage, which culminated in the category one climb La Croix Neuve into Mende. Team Astana controlled the peloton for much of the day as their main man Contador looked set to make his move. As the riders got to the foot of the final climb, French rider Christophe Le Mevel of the Francaise des Jeux team took up the pace closely followed by Contador. This was surely the moment for El Pistolero to make his move and he blew the field away as the summit approached. This was vintage Contador and he was laying down a real marker for the rest of the season. With one kilometre to go, Valverde and EuskatelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Samuel Sanchez were the only two riders left chasing as Contador arrived at the finish with a 10 second advantage.
Valverde was second with Samuel Sanchez third. Luis Ã¢â‚¬â€œLeon Sanchez came in ninth and lost valuable time on Contador. This incredible racer had massacred the field and took over the yellow jersey by 24 seconds from Valverde. Roman Kreuziger, another young star from Liquigas moved into third. Sagan kept hold of the green jersey and Mangel held onto top spot in the mountainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s classification.
Stage 5 – Pernes-les-Fontaines – Aix-en-Provence, 157 km
A day that will be remembered as the Peter Sagan show Ã¢â‚¬â€ this incredible young rider from Slovakia took his second stage victory of Paris-Nice after a brave attack just three kilometres from the finish. It had been a hard day, especially for Team Astana who tried to control the stage to protect their leader Contador. With five kilometres to go, the peloton split into two groups as Sagan made his move.
All of the main protagonists managed to arrive in Aix-en-Provence in the lead group with Valverde picking up some precious bonus seconds for third place. SaganÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s heroics consolidated his green jersey with ContadorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lead now standing at 20 seconds from Valverde in second. Kreuziger was third just one second in front of Luis-Leon Sanchez. AmaÃƒÂ«l Moinard of the Cofidis team took over the polka dot jersey after a great day on the climbs.
Stage 6 – Peynier – Tourrettes-sur-Loup, 220 km
The longest stage of this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s race was the last real chance for Valverde, Kreuziger and Luis-Leon Sanchez to wrestle the yellow jersey off the back of Contador. The early stages were dominated by Moinard, who wracked up enough points to ensure he would take the king of the mountainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prize. The stage would be decided on the final climb of the day Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the imposing Col de Vence around 30 kilometres from the finish. In another day dominated by Spanish riders, Xavier Tondo riding for the Cervelo team broke away from the leading pack to power his way to stage glory Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it was the biggest win of the 31-year-oldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s career.
All attention then switched to the chasing group as Valverde yet again attempted to take some time out of ContadorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lead. His second place finish ensured a six second bonus as Contador arrived in the same group. Sagan yet again arrived on the podium with a sensational third place stage finish. The green pointÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey was his. As we headed into the final day and the finish in Nice, ContadorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lead over Valverde was 14 seconds. Kreuziger, already assured of the young riderÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey was third, a further 11 seconds back. Luis-Leon Sanchez was only one second behind in fourth. Moinard was the king of the mountains.
Stage 7 – Nice – Nice, 119 km
As the sun beat down on the final stage around Nice, Contador and his Astana team controlled the peloton right from the start. The real battle on stage seven was for the final podium place. Luis-Leon Sanchez was lying just a second behind Roman Kreuziger and he knew the importance of picking up sprint bonuses during the day. Just 18 kilometres into the stage, the defending champion took two precious seconds in the dayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first sprint at Le Plan-du-Var, he was now a second in front of Kreuziger in the general classification. As the peloton headed for the finish, the stage victory was being fought out between two French riders Ã¢â‚¬â€ Thomas Voeckler of BBox Bouygues Telecom and AmaÃƒÂ«l Moinard of Cofidis.
In a fitting finale of a wonderful weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s racing, Moinard pipped Voeckler on the line to take the stage along with the polka dot jersey for best climber. ValverdeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brave effort to overhaul Contador saw him finish third and take a few more bonus seconds. Irishman Nicholas Roche of the AG2R team finished fourth to cap of a wonderful tour for him. Contador was the champion by 11 seconds from Valverde. Luis-Leon-SanchezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sprint bonus ensured he leapfrogged Kreuziger into third spot to complete an all Spanish top three. The star of the race Peter Sagan, took the green pointÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s jersey to end a wonderful week for him. David Millar was the best of the Brits finishing 13th.
All eyes will now turn to the opening spring classic of the season in Italy at the Milan-Sanremo on Saturday.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge