Alejandro Valverde wins tight sprint to take Paris-Nice stage three
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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Alejandro Valverde wins tight sprint to take Paris-Nice stage three

by Ben Atkins at 11:07 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Race Reports and Results, Paris-Nice
 
Wiggins holds yellow after aggressive end to a long, calm day

alejandro valverde Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won a very close sprint with Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) to take the second stage of the 2012 Paris-Nice between Vierzon and the climb to Le Lac de Vassivière. The punchy Spanish rider, who was named as most commentator’s favourite before the stage, crossed the line just inches ahead of the Australian’s front wheel, after his Movistar team piled on the pressure at the end of a relatively easy day. Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol) took third, at the end of the 194km stage across the centre of France, just behind Gerrans.

The stage, which was always billed as a chance for the first early sparrings between the overall contenders had been a relatively easy affair for most, until the Movistar team took over from race leader Bradley Wiggins’ Sky team inside the final 25km.

They - along with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of second overall Levi Leipheimer - quickly pulled back the stage-long break of Michael Mørkøv (Saxo Bank), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) and Roy Curvers (Project 1t4i) - although Engoulvent resisted until he reached the final climb - and then chased down a late move from Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil-DCM).

There was a flurry of attacks inside the final kilometre, but Valverde bided his time and launched his sprint at just the right time. Gerrans tried to come around the former Spanish champion, but left it a fraction too late and was beaten by little more than the width of Valverde’s deep-section front wheel.

"I really must thank my team-mates who did a phenomenal job all day and in the finale,” said Valverde afterwards. “I’m glad to have won this because it was a great fight.

“Of course I think about final victory but for now, I’m just glad I won this,” he continued. “I was in the front group yesterday and my sensations since the start have been great. We’ll see.”

Wiggins and Leipheimer were safely in the group behind, and so the British champion holds on to the yellow jersey for another day. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) moves up to third as Leipheimer’s teammate, stage two winner Tom Boonen - along with most of the other sprinters - was dropped on the final climb.

The break goes immediately and Wiggins’ team allows them their day in the sun

The stage, just like the day before, was heading in an almost unwavering due-south course, right through the middle of the Centre region of the hexagonal country. Having moved much further south, the weather conditions of the previous stage had eased; overcast skies replaced the rainclouds of before, and the wind had dropped considerably.

Mørkøv, Engoulvent and Curvers attacked at the gun and, by the time they had covered 25km, were 4’40” ahead. Team Sky then took control of the peloton, stabilising the gap at 4’30”, where it was to stay for the next hundred kilometres or so.

None of the three breakaway riders had been part of the 21-man group that had pulled clear of the front of the peloton the previous day; Mørkøv was the overall best placed of the trio, 3’06” behind Wiggins at the start of the stage.

Despite the undulation profile of the stage parcours, there were no official obstacles for the riders until they reached the 3rd category Côte de Bourganeuf with 26.5km to go. Team Sky was quite happy to allow the trio its time in front of the TV cameras but, as the terrain began to get more challenging inside the final 60km, the gap came down to 3’55”.

The peloton was still calmly being led by Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, with all of his teammates strung out behind him. Wiggins was sat comfortably in seventh wheel but, behind him lurked almost the entire Omega Pharma-Quick Step team; Levi Leipheimer ready to pounce.

Such was the easy pace in the bunch that a lack of concentration from some riders near the back caused a crash. David Moncoutié (Cofidis), Jan Bakelants (Lotto-Belisol), and a number of riders from Euskaltel-Euskadi were among those to come down, but everybody was able to remount and rejoin the peloton without too much trouble.

The peloton slowly, slowly reels in the breakaways

Steadily the metronomic pace of Team Sky was chipping away the leading trio’s advantage and, as they entered the final 50km of the stage, Mørkøv, Engoulvent and Curvers’ lead was down to 3’45”. Progress remained unhurried however, and with 35km to go it was still as much as 3’05”.

The pace was still gentle enough for AG2R La Mondiale leader Jean-Christophe Péraud to get a very leisurely bike change, then visit his team car for adjustments to be performed to his new one, and then return to the peloton without needing any assistance from his teammates.

With 29km to go, the three leaders hit the bottom of the Côte de Bourganeuf; they were still 2’50” clear, and the cooperation that had characterised their breakaway until now continued. Mørkøv upped his pace a little in the lead up to the climb, but Curvers came past him with 100 metres to go and cruised, unopposed, across the line.

The Dutchman now had four points, putting him joint second in the mountains classification, behind polka-dot jersey holder Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM).

Movistar moved forward to the front as the peloton hit the climb, with Alejandro Valverde clearly feeling confident. The pace was not noticeably lifted however, with the gap to the leaders going out to 2’55” as the bunch rolled over the top.

As they hit the rolling roads that followed the climb however, the Spanish team began to pile the pressure on, but the acceleration was only long enough for the eight Movistar riders to replace those of Team Sky at the front. It did have an effect on the breakaway’s lead though, reducing it quickly to 2’10” with 22km to go.

Movistar mixes it up as the finish is in sight

Movistar clearly meant business as, inside the final 20km, the gap was now down to 1’15”. So as not to let the Spanish team have things all its own way though, Omega Pharma-Quick Step moved forward en masse, along with a number of riders from RadioShack-Nissan, Lampre-ISD, and Rabobank.

The leaders’ advantage was now tumbling, and was down to just 47 seconds as they passed the 15km to go banner. Knowing their capture was becoming imminent, Engoulvent attacked the other two with 14km to go, and neither made too much of an effort to follow him.

As Engoulvent descended towards the intermediate sprint at Peyrat-le-Château, at the foot of the final climb, his lead was static at 22 seconds. Mørkøv and Curvers shook hands and surrendered with 11km to go, as Boonen himself - dressed in the green points jersey - led the peloton.

It was tough for the peloton to descend much faster than Engoulvent though, and he took the sprint alone with 8km to go, still 7 seconds clear of Geraint Thomas and Movistar’s Jose Ivan Gutierrez.

Engoulvent managed to last two kilometres of the climb, but the peloton swept past him with six to go. The race favourites were all massing at the front of the peloton, as some of the sprinters - including former World champion Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) - began to be tailed off.

Its all over for Engoulvent so Lagutin tries his luck

With 4km to go Lagutin attacked and, since he was of little threat overall, the favourites watched him go. With 3km to go the former Uzbek champion was 12 seconds clear; Movistar and Rabobank had him in their sights though, and their pace caused Ivan Basso - who’d crashed the previous day - to sit up.

Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) tried to launch himself across the gap to Lagutin, but was swept up after a few hundred metres by the Movistar team. This brought the peloton ever closer to the lone Uzbek, and the Spanish team breezed past him just before the final kilometre.

The pace saw defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) dropped, just as Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) launched an attack. The Dutchman, who started in eighth place - just 22 seconds behind Wiggins - was covered immediately however.

With 500m Péraud launched a big move and managed to get a few metres clear. He was chased and overtaken by Jonathan Hivert (Saur-Sojasun), though, who was himself passed by a long line of riders led by Xavier Florencio (Katusha).

Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) overtook Florencio as soon as he had passed Hivert, but this was the point that Valverde had chosen to open up his own sprint, with Gerrans trying to come alongside him as they reached the line.

Close sprint that harked back to their first meeting this year at the top of the Old Willunga Hill on the fifth stage of the Tour Down Under. Sadly for Gerrans, the result was the same and, after a long delay, Valverde was officially proclaimed the winner; the photofinish showed that there was less than half a wheel between them.

Wiggins was safely in the front group with the rest of the favourites, and he still leads Leipheimer by six seconds and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) by eleven. Time bonuses for Valverde see him jump into sixth place, while Boonen, Thomas and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) drop out of the top ten.

Result stage 3
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team
2. Simon Gerrans (Aus) GreenEDGE
3. Gianni Meersman (Bel) Lotto-Belisol
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Rabobank
5. Xavier Florencio (Spa) Katusha Team
6. Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
7. Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan
8. Jonathan Hivert (Fra) Saur-Sojasun
9. Francesco Gavazzi (Ita) Team Astana
10. Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM

Standings after stage 3
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Team Sky
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Omega Pharma-Quick Step @ 6s
3. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team @ 11s
4. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quick Step @ 14s
5. Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan @ 18s
6. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team @ 20s
7. Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM @ 22s
8. Jose Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Movistar Team @ 29s
9. Simon Spilak (Slo) Katusha Team @ 33s
10. Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Team Astana @ 36s

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