Sunday, 27 March 2011

Boonen takes a second victory in the Gent-Wevelgem one-day classic ahead of the Tour of Flanders

With just a week to go until the second monument of the "Cobbled Classic" greats, the Tour of Flanders, Quick Step rider Tom Boonen out-sprinted rivals Daniele Bennati of Italy and Tyler Farrar of the United States to take the Gent-Wevelgem classic victory. His victory comes just a day after sprint rival Fabian Cancellara won the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke race in his own preparation for next Sunday's showdown.

A breakaway by five cyclists led by French champion Thomas Voeckler 80 kilometres from home, was soon hauled in by the peloton setting it the race up for a sprint finish which saw Boonen comfortably come out on top; his second success of the season following his stage win in the Tour of Qatar.

Beset by set back after set back that saw him slip further and further towards the back of the peoloton, Britain's Mark Cavendish faced disapointment as he failed to make his mark following fall shortly before the conclusion to the race, that saw him shouting in frustration at a fellow dismounted rider and the ground itself.

Taking the win, a second for the Belgian rider who also took the victory here in 2004 which saw him earn the apt nickname "Tornado Tom", he proved that the course is best suited to local riders and those who know the roads well. With two ascents of the Kemmelberg and narrow roads that switch from concrete to cobbles, like many of the Spring Classics, this race can out-best even the most capable of sprinters, as indeed happened today for the Manx Missile Mark Cavendish.

With luck clearly not on his side today, he was dropped to the back of the peloton; a place no sprinter with hopes of victory wants to be. Further impeded by a crash, the door opened for his team mate Eisel to defend his victory as last years winner. However it wasnt to be his day either as Lady Luck rested on the lycra-clad shoulders of Boonen.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Goss continues fantastic form sprinting to victory in Milan-Sanremo

Australian Matthew Goss of the HTC-Highroad team claimed the biggest victory of his career to date as he sprinted to victory in Milan-Sanremo, the longest of the spring classics at 298Km.  Proving himself to be the strongest in an eight man finish following a thrilling series of attacks in a race that defied commentators to predict the result right to the end, Goss beat 2008 victor Cancellara and Belgian rider Phillipe Gilbert to take the win; a second for the HTC-Highroad team in just three years, following Mark Cavendish's success here in 2009.  

Earlier, Cavendish had described the "opera" that is the Milan-Sanremo.  With six climbs that build to a climax: a rapid decent into a flat coastal finish on the Italian Riviera, it is a race beloved for its dramatic test of endurance and preparation early in the season when legs are still fresh.  

Like many well loved races, here anything can, and indeed does, happen.  Sprinters teams have been foiled from time-to-time by a determined attack on the last hills. Good examples include Laurent Jalabert and Maurizio Fondriest escaping in 1995 and staying away to the finish. In 2003, Paolo Bettini attacked with several riders who all stayed away and in 2006 Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan attacked on the last hill and stayed away.

Today was no exception; Goss had been part of a select group of riders that had managed to stay at the front and leave the main chasing peloton behind around 70km from home.  Several other contenders, including Mark Cavendish, world champion Thor Hushovd and three-time winner Oscar Friere, were caught in the second group of a fractured peloton, forced to chase in vain for two hours.  

As the race headed into the final 8km, the attacks and counter-attacks came thick and fast, building to a dramatic finish that saw Goss make a decisive break as the line came into sight.  The calculated move paid off and the Austrailian rider notched up an impressive 8th win for the season so far.  

Known as one of five one-day classic 'monuments' in cycling alongside the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy, Milan-Sanremo comes ahead of the  Gent - Wevelgem next Sunday.  Starting Monday is the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, one of the oldest races in the UCI WorldTour Calender.  The seven day stage race will see riders carve out a route from  Lloret de Mar to Barcelona.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Martin takes overall victory in the "Race to the Sun"

25 year old HTC-Rider Tony Martin was branded a Ray of Hope for German cycling following his overal victory on the final day of the Paris-Nice. Nicknamed the "Race to the Sun" it seemed more like a race to the rain as the 135 man strong peloton made its way along the 124km route around Nice.

Beating compatriat Andreas Kloeden, winner 11 years ago, Martin made history books as only the 3rd German to win the famed race. With most of his rivals conceding defeat and accepting their GC standings, no challenge came for the young rider as the race headed towards the rain-soaked Promenade des Anglais. With Kloeden finishing 36 seconds behind Martin, Britain's Bradley Wiggins finished third, 41 seconds adrift.

With the contenders for final victory above all trying to limit risks, boldness paid off again: the boldest of them all Thomas Voeckler, made it two after his 4th stage victory in Belleville, the Europcar leader becoming the first Frenchman to win two Paris-Nice stages since Laurent Jalabert in 1997. In the front all day, he took most risks in the treacherous descents of the stage to win on his own ahead of Italian prospect Diego Ulissi, his final breakaway companion.

Andriy Grivko (Astana) was the first to attack at 3km but his efforts were reined in before the first climb, the Cote de Duranus (Km 33.5), where French champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) staged a bid to attack. As they tackled the descent, a group of 11 emerged: David Lopez-Garcia (Movistar), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Matthew Busche (RadioShack), Matteo Carrara (Vancasoleil), Laurent Didier (Saxo Bank), Julien El Fares (Cofidis), Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel), Diego Ulissi (Lampre), Remi Pauriol (FDJ), Voeckler and Gerdemann.

On the Col de Chateauneuf (2nd cat, km 55.5), Pauriol led the way to add seven points to comfort his jersey. Securing it on the next ascent, the Col de Calaison the 2nd category climb saw Gerdemann, followed by Vinokourov retire. The gap, which reached a maximum of 3:10, was 2:50 at the summit; exactly the time difference between Tony Martin and Matteo Carrara in the GC at the start of the day.

As the break headed for La Turbie, Pauriol, Busche and Didier lost ground, leaving six riders in the lead. At the back, the peloton was also losing several men leaving only some 20 riders in the chase, including yellow jersey holder Tony Martin and all the leading contenders for final victory.

At the summit of La Turbie (1st cat, km 94), the favourites had sliced the gap down to 1:25 but the lead rose again in the Col d’Eze as Voeckler and Ulissi parted company with their former companions (km 104). At the peak, the Italian was first and the two maintained a short 16 seconds lead over their nearest chasers.

With the peloton still 1:30 adrift, and some ten seconds behind Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), assisted by Izagirre, who waited for his leader to try and help him onto the podium in the finale, only the Olympic champion, challenged Martin in the day’s climbs or descents. Sanchez's move was ultimately fruitless but he still finished fourth to dislodge France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud from the top five.

Stage victory now looked certain for one of the two escapees and Voeckler was the boldest of the duo, attacking on the descent to Nice never to be seen again. The group including Tony Martin crossed the line 1:22 behind, crowning one of the most promising riders in the world’s peloton.

Rising star Martin made clear his goal following his win: "It’s a fantastic start of the season, which gives me so much confidence for the next races. I’ll be ready for the season. For sure it’s my biggest goal to have a good Tour de France. I hope I can do it. I think I’m ready for it."

Proving his worth as the runaway leader since the 27-kms individual time trial in Aix-en-Provence, he strengthened his position as a time trialist, and showed that he will be a man to watch throughout the season.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

De Gregorio succeeds with much longed for win

Bad weather, slippery roads and nagging self doubts were among the hardships endured on todays penultimate and longest stage of the 2011 Paris-Nice. Making a decisive move in the final 13km to the finish, Remy Di Gregorio was rewarded with a much longed for victory in Biot. The 26-year-old rider from Marseille was without a team at the end of last season after failing to hold his promises at team Francaise des Jeux. Hired by Astana this season, the lost hope of French cycling lifted the gauntlet to snatch his great win at long last.

Fourth in the 4th stage after taking part in long break, Di Gegorio showed new strength of character to win with a six seconds led over Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran and the top two riders in the overall standings: Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) and yellow jersey holder Tony Martin (HTC-High Road). The longest stage of the race this year proved to be as toughest as it appeared on paper, with several crashes taking place on the slick roads forcing many riders, including Frank Schleck and Peter Sagan to call it quits on the eve of the final stage.

Winning the first sprint in Lorgues (km 30.5), Heinrich Haussler strengthen his lead in the green jersey competion. Meanwhile on the first climb of the day, Cote des Tuilieres (2nd cat, km 47.5), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) attacked, quickly followed by Sebastien Minard (AG2R), then by Jurgen Roelandts (OLO) and Ivan Santaromita (BMC). At the summit the four were joined by Grega Bole (Lampre) to make a five man breakaway. But with Astana riders leading the chase, the five were caught in the next climb, Cote du Mont-Meaulx (km 63).

After several attempts involving Astana's Vinokourov and Rabobank's Weening, two men, Dutchman Karsten Kroon (BMC) and Eric Berthou (Bretagne-Schuller), finally made a significant break at kilometre 82. Their lead topped at 6:50 shortly before the ascent of the Cote de Cabris (1st cat, km 102.5).

With pre-race favourite Sandy Cesar giving up on the ascent, his FDJ team mates lead a brave bid to strengthen Pauriol's lead in the polka dot jersey adding 6 points to his tally. In the Col du Ferrier (km 112.5), Pauriol tried to repeat the move but was caught off-guard by nearest rival Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil) and had to settle for 4th place.

With headwinds and drizzles accounting for a slow average speed (28.4 kph in the third hour) the whole Garmin-Cervelo team took charge of the chase to maintain the gap around 3:50. In the final climb, Cote de Gourdon (2nd cat, km 151), Westra surged again with Spain’s David Lopez Garcia and reached the summit two minutes behind the leading duo. The Dutchman’s effort was stopped short when he slid and crashed in the descent, made extremely treacherous by the pouring rain. Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Cervelo) was the most seriously hurt in several crashes and resigned with a suspected knee injury.

As the two escapees entered the final circuit (km 169) they held a two-minute lead over the splintered peloton. Vinokourov and Luis-Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) were among the riders lying in the second part of the bunch, 50 seconds behind the group including all the jersey holders.

At kilometre 180, Kroon took off on his own. The experienced Dutchman, 35, resisted well but his lead was progressively trimmed down by the whole Movistar team, who led the chase for most of the last 40 kms. With 20 kms to go, Haussler crashed for the third time a serious blow to the points leader who saw his victory hopes vanish.

Kroon was tamed after a 120 kms break (Km 202) and Di Gregorio lifted the gauntlet just as his team-mate Robert Kiserlovski crahsed at the back. He maintained a lead of under 20 seconds and kept the peloton at bay until the finish line. Tony Martin retained his overall lead with 26 seconds over Kloeden and 41 seconds over Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky).

Tomorrows final stage will be a short and nervous 124km stage setting out from the Promenade des Anglais. The first part of the stage has been modified with respect to previous editions, but riders will still have the chance to give it their all on the climbs up the Côte de Duranus, the Col du Chateauneuf and finally the Col de Calaïson, where the brave will take their shot at glory. Then, the pack will return to Nice through La Turbie and the Col d’Eze, with a tense descent and a long straight before the finish line next to the sea.

HTC rider Martin triumphant in Time Trial

Once again HTC Highroad rider Tony Martin proved his abilty as an individual time trialer. Storming to win at Aix-en-Provance the German dominated the 27km route, hammering it out in 33 minutes and 24 seconds. At 48.5 kph, the world championship bronze-medallist, recent winner of the Tour of Algarve, beat another specialist, Briton's own star Bradley Wiggins, by 20 seconds.

Yellow jersey holder Andreas Kloeden fought hard to take the fourth place 46 seconds off the pace, but it was not enough to keep his overall lead before the final trek into Nice. Martin, 25, now leads his veteran compatriot, his elder by ten years, by 36 seconds overall while Wiggins is a further three seconds back. Kloeden left the stage last podium spot to last year’s Giro sensation Richie Porte of Australia, who finished 29 seconds behind Martin to confirm his skills as a time trialist.

The penultimate stage sees the peloton carve out the 215km route from Brignoles to Biot - Sophia Antipolis. The longest stage of Paris-Nice, following six days of racing, this stage is sure to hurt the riders. Having to dig deep once more on a route with several traps many riders could fall foul to the perils of the stage and be dropped. Around Grasse, they will need to expend enough power to keep up with the pace set on the Côte de Cabris on their way to the Col du Ferrier. The stage finale, with two laps of an 18 km long circuit in the heights of Biot-Sophia Antipolis on the menu, will also be a real leg-breaker.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Kloeden outsprints rivals to take win on stage 5

In an exciting ride in the Ardeche hills, two time Tour de France runner up (2004, 2006) Andreas Kloeden won the 193-kms 5th stage of Paris-Nice following a brilliant team effort by the Radio-Shack boys. Eleven years after his sucess in the Race to the Sun, the German outsprinted his seven breakaway companions to cross the line in Vernoux-in-Vivarais ahead of Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and little-known Italian Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil). Coming ahead of the 27km individual time trial in Aix-en-Provence, we could see an all-German showdown as Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) finished fourth in the stage.

The decisive move took place on the perilous descent of the Col de la Mure, nine kilometres from the finish, as eight riders broke clear, never to be seen again. In the finale, Kloeden was able to count on team-mate Janez Brajkovic, who set him up perfectly for a textbook sprint victory.

As the horrendous pace was set almost at the off, the likes of De Weert and Offredo were forced to abandon as they were dropped off the back. Remi Pauriol (FDJ) and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) took early chances to strengthen their respective jerseys; the polka-dot jersey holder first at the top of Cote des Ayats (3rd cat, km 29) and Haussler winning the Kivilev Memorial in St Chamond (km 38).

With the battle starting in the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R), Roman Kreuziger (Astana) and a few other riders launched an unsuccessful attempt. Dutchman Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil) took advantage of the move to break on his own, crossing the line in front with a 35 seconds lead over a group of four men: Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), David Lopez-Garcia (Movistar), Hubert Dupont (AG2R) and Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo). Romain Hardy (Bretagne-Schuller) joined the four in the descent (km 68) their efforts fruitful as they caught Westra soon afterwards.

The six held a maximum lead of 4:10 shortly before Annonay (km 79) as teams RadioShack and Rabobank led the chase, bringing the time gap down to around 2 minutes. With the pace increasing again on the Col de Montreynaud (2nd cat, km 136) Dupont, Westra and Lopez-Garcia dropped their three other breakaway companions.

At the front of the peloton, several prominent riders tried to bridge the gap – Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ) and Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) – before being reined in in the Côte de Vernoux (km 143). As the race hit the Col de Comberon (km 150) Westra dropped Lopez-Garcia, then Dupont but the Frenchman came back in the descent, quickly followed by the main pack.

Shortly after the junction, FDJ riders seized the peloton’s reins and imposed fearsome pace in the descent. Arthur Vichot crashing in the process (km 160, he was forced to abandon his race. The move however placed four FDJ men in a seven-man breakaway which included Pierrick Fedrigo, Sandy Casar, Cedric Pineau, Jeremy Roy (all FDJ) Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Simon Spilak (Lampre) and Yuri Trofimov (Katusha).

But as they hit the bottom of the last climb, the gruelling Col de la Mure, the escapees were caught, Astana taking the reins over from FDJ and following attempts by Remy Di Gregorio and Roman Kreuziger, their team-mate Robert Kiserlovski of Croatia broke with Italy’s Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil).

The duo were caught near the summit by Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), who reached the top in the front. As they hit the descent, a group of eight emerged: Tony Martin (THR), Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil), Xavier Tondo (Movistar), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), Andreas Kloeden and Janez Brajkovic (both RadioShack), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel). Led by Martin and Brajkovic, the group maintained a 20 seconds lead over the closest chasing bunch and were left to battle it out in the finale. Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphine Libere winner, launched the sprint for Kloeden, lifting his arms in the air, seeing his team-mate had made it across the line.

Tomorrows stage will be an individual time trial of 27km from Roges to Aix-en-Provance. The last time Paris-Nice featured such a long individual time trial was in 1968. Contenders for the final victory should be well placed at this stage of the race and they will have to let their legs do the talking. Those who are able to do so will try and make the difference in a stage which is tailored for specialists. The parcours crosses the heart of the Pays d’Aix and stays mostly flat along the Durance river, but the effort required on the Côte de la Cride could break the rhythm of pure power riders. Following todays action we could very well see a German dominated stage.

Voeckler victorious in case of third time lucky

Following a fantastic breakaway, French champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) succeeded with a win on stage 3 yesterday after years of failed attempts of victory at Paris-Nice. Staying out of reach of the ever present peloton for 185km of the 191km route, Voeckler out-sprinted compatriot Remy Pauriol (Cofidis) and Belgian Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil). Twice beaten in 2009 and last year and breaking his collar bone in 2009, victory was a sweet taste in a once bitter mouth. This seasons Tour du Haut Var winner, Voeckler has his rival De Gent to thank for setting the pace for the final 20km as he desperately fought to regain the yellow jersey from Matt Goss. Taking advantage of the days seven climbs, Pauriol was successful in snatching the polka-dot jersey for himself.

Nikolas Maes, injured in yesterday’s sprint pile-up and Gert Steegmans, winner in Belleville in 2008 were the only two riders who failed to start the 191km stage from Crêches-sur-Saône to Belleville. After a vain attempt by seven brave riders, a successful break came at the 6km mark in the form of the trio of Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), former race leader Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil) and Remi Pauriol (FDJ). At the first climb, the Col de Grand-Vent, they were joined by Remy Di Gregorio (FDJ) and Francis de Greef (Omega Pharma Lotto) (Km 14).

The gruelling pace set almost at the gun, the likes of Russian sprinter Denis Galimzyanov, 5th overall, who gave up after 20 kms, were quickly dropped; the break gaining momentum after the first climb, their lead reached 4:15 after 40 kms. On the Col des Ecorbans, 25 kms later, the gap had risen by a minute to a day’s maximum of 5:15.

Reaching the summit in prime position on almost all of the climbs, Pauriol had made his ambitions for the polka-dot jersey well known. As the rugged terrain slowed the pace for the peloton, Team Sky and Garmin-Cervelo started sharing chasing duties with HTC-HighRoad to bring the tempo up once more. By the last climb (Col de Fontmartin, km 156) the tempo had move up a gear and some 30 riders, including polka-dot jersey holder Jussi Veikkanen, paid the toll to a hard day’s ride, drifting at the back.

At the front De Gent hammered down hard leaving the peloton to give up the chase with 2km remaining. As the final sprint came it was Voeckler who took the stage win, but the successes were shared as De Gent regained the yellow and Pauriol grabbed the polka dot jersey.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Goss avoids pile up at last corner to take the win and snatch the lead from De Gent

HTC-Columbia rider Goss continued his fine form to take a win on day 3 of Paris-Nice. Avoiding a crash at the last corner, the young Tazmanian rider held firm to the last to snatch the coveted yellow jersey from the shoulders of fellow young rider De Gent with the win and a 2 second lead in the GC standings. Buoyed by successes in the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Oman, Goss showed that he is a man to watch this coming season as he beat rivals Heinrich Haussler and Denis Galimzyanov to the finish in the blazing sunshine.

172 riders began the day following the departure of France’s Romain Sicard who had retired before todays Grand Departe due to an ailing knee. With 5 riders breaking at the gun, Frenchmen Cedric Pineau (FDJ), Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Romain Hardy (Bretagne Schuller) and Blel Kadri (AG2R) along with Finnish champion Jussi Veikkanen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), it was another day for the peloton to play their game of cat and mouse with the escapees.

In spite of the mild March weather the pace was notably slower than yesterdays hammering tempo as the peloton seemed to feel more in control of the race. As the time gap fell to around a minute on the ascent of the Becoup climb (2nd cat, km 179)under the control of Vacansoliel, several attempts by Finish champion Veikkanen were reined in by the leading group. His hard work paid off as he reached the summit in the lead, snatching the polka-dot jersey with the maximum points.

As the leading group approached the 181km mark, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) surged, overtaking the escapees, much to the exception of Kadri who went on with the French champion. Holding the peloton at bay with a 20 second lead for the next 15km, the were caught with just 5km remaining.

The stage was now set up for a mass sprint, but there was nothing text book about it. With riders overlooking the winding finale and the sharp corner before the last stretch, several found themselves tasting tarmac including Peter Sagan (Liquigas) and Yoann Offredo (FDJ). Seizing the upper hand in the now disrupted sprint, Goss narrowly beat Haussler to the line to clinch the victory.

Tomorrow the peloton will tackle the demanding 191km route from Crêches-sur-Saône to Belleville which will see them ascend a series of seven climbs, including three Category 1 climbs. The fast pace will leave riders just enough time to have a quick glance at the Roche de Solutré, which comes shortly after the start at Crêches-sur-Saône. The Beaujolais vineyards will set the scene as the more impatient riders launch attacks on the roads of the Col du Fût d’Avenas. The finish line is fifty kilometres away in Belleville, a city which has smiled upon sprinters in the past: Baldato (2000), McEwen (2002), Boonen (2006) and Steegmans (2008) have all triumphed here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Henderson take the win on stage 2 ahead of race leader De Gent

Once again the weather was on the side of the peloton as they began their 199km route to Amilly on this crisp spring day. The sun may have been shinning in a cloudless sky but it did little to warm the riders as they made their way out of the Yvelines department and headed south into the Loiret department town of Amilly. Slovakia’s Martin Velits (THR) was the only rider not to start, having been injured in a crash during yesterdays opening stage.

Following his victory, Vacansoleil rider De Gent leads Jeremy Roy (FDJ) by six seconds and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin) by nine seconds. Toping the board in the young rider classification and the sprint competition he wears the GC leaders yellow jersey while the green jersey is worn by Roy and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Liquigas), wears the white jersey. Europcar’s Damien Gaudin wears the polka dot jersey and with no registered climbs on this stage, he is set to continue into stage 3 wearing it.

At the gun an attack by Yoann Offredo (FDJ), Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), all under 25, confirmed that this 69th edition of Paris-Nice is an ideal showcase for the up-and-coming generation, following yesterday’s first break by two under-25 riders, Damien Gaudin and Gorka Izagirre; the stage being won by Thomas de Gendt aged just 24.

Ratcheting up a lead of 5 minutes over the peloton, Vacansoleil came to the fore to bring the time gap down to secure their man in his standing as race leader. Stabilizing the lead to around 4:50 minutes by the first sprint it was Gallopin who took the maximum points as the race headed towards Pithiviers where in 2004, a "bordure", led by the CSC team, took shape allowing 30 riders to break from the main pack and reach Montargis with a five-minute lead. Franck Schleck, Michael Rogers, Jens Voigt, Christophe Le Mevel, Sylvain Cahavanel and Geoffroy Lequatre were among the riders who then took advantage of the echelon and the ensuing split.

At the 83km mark Yoann Offredo was swallowed up by the pack as they worked hard to bring the escaping group back, but without Offredo, the breakaway seemed to gain momentum and by the feeding station the gap had increased to just over 6 minutes.

Eager to prove their worth in the opening of their second season, team Sky came to the head of the peloton to drive the tempo up. With panic starting to set in riders began to get dropped, as the peloton risked fracturing under the pressure.

As the gap fell to around a minute the group of riders unable to keep to the hammering pace being set by Sky trailed behind the main bunch 40 seconds back. Up in front and sensing the panicked efforts of the chasing peloton the escaping duo worked together to bring their lead back up. With Vacansoleil fearing a second victory for a breakaway group and the yellow jersey slipping from their man, they took the reigns from Sky to drive the tempo again to reel the duo in.

With the gap coming down to around a minute, the pressure began to take its toll with a crash in the main field involving Andriy Grivko (Astana), Johan van Summeren (Garmin) and Simone Ponzi (Liquigas) saw the peloton splinter even further. The gap falling to around 45' a second crash saw Frank Schleck hit the deck along with many others as Maxime Bouet and Tony Gallopin were stopped by a railway crossing; the peloton stopped in turn.

The duo allowed to start again with their 45 seconds lead over the bunch, it wasn't long before Gallopin slowed allowing Bouet to continue a solo effort leaving himself to be caught by the ever chasing pack. Holding his own and a lead that had now diminished to 20 seconds, Bouet continued to evade the hungry peloton as Australia’s Heinrich Haussler (Garmin) crashed into the roadside ditch. But with only a 20 second lead it wasn't long before Bouet was caught, as the peloton breathed a sigh of relief.

With just 30km left Tony Martin (THR)was the next casualty from within the bunch as he crashed to the ground, his team mates bringing him back by the 25km mark. The peloton regrouping, Rabobank and Movistar came to the fore looking for an opportunity to break it up once more. With 18 kms to go, the mass sprint scenario seemed more and more likely, with Greg Henderson looking to repeat his victory in similar conditions two years ago.

A nervous peloton fractured into three groups headed into the final 13km, the leading group being headed by Astana's Tomas Vaitkus and Alexandre Vinokourov with some 20 riders including Jakob Fuglsang, who crashed earlier, former escapees Yoann Offredo and Maxime Bouet, Christophe Riblon and Sergio Paulinho struggling to maintain the high tempo. With just 2.5km remaining, Luis-Leon Sanchez punctured. Sensing a golden opportunity, race leader De Gent attacked but his solo effort was quickly shut down as HTC Columbia took control of the sprint, bringing their man Matt Goss into contention for a win however it was Sky's Greg Henderson who crossed the line first snatching the victory from his rivals.

Tomorrow the riders will tackle the 202km from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire to Nuits-Saint-Georges as the race visits the Morvan Natural Park, whose undulating roads should favour a lively stage. Following the pelotons arrival in Côte-d’Or, the riders will follow the Bourgogne canal and then ride among vineyards for over 25 kilometres before reaching one of its most prestigious towns: Nuits-Saint-Georges. It remains to be seen whether there will be a repeat of 1977, when a sprinter took the stage in the home of the Nuitons.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

De Gent victorious in Paris-Nice opener

The season proper kicked off today with the first of the Spring races, the Paris-Nice. As the sun shone gloriously over Houdan, the amassed 176 riders from 34 countries began their 154.5km circuit that would take them around the picturesque town just outside Paris in the Yvelines department.

Almost immediately a breakaway of two riders formed, with Damien Gaudin (Europcar), 24, won the under-23 Paris-Roubaix in 2007 and is a great track rider with several national titles and Gorka Insausti (Euskaltel) attacking 15 kilometers into the race. First at the top of the only climb of the day, the Cote de Septeuil (Km24.5), the Frenchman Gaudin took the points and the best climber jersey.

By the 33km mark the pair had gained 8 minutes and 15 seconds over the main bunch, who worked under the control of Tony Martin and his HTC-Highroad team mates to reel the leaders back into the fold.

At the first intermediate sprint it was Gaudin again at the front of the pair taking the points as the chasing peloton began to breath heavily down their necks, the gap closing to around 2 minutes.

Shortly after, the days only crash saw Martin Velits (HTC) and Sebastien Minard (AG2R) in the gutter tasting tarmac. Up and back the panic was starting to set in as the peloton began to fear the day's escapees may take the stage. Having spent 98km out in front, the pair were finally caught, as the race headed into the final 56km.

There was no let up for the main field however, as almost immediately 3 riders took off the front of the pack. Playing tactically, France’s Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) and Germany’s Jens Voigt (Leopard Trek) took advantage of a junction to attack. With a gap of around a minute, the main bunch split as the tempo rose sharply, creating a "bordure" (echelon).

As the group maintained their 35 second advantage into the final 10km, the bunch would have to organise themselves quickly if they wanted to catch them. Fearing a sprint finish might not come off, Britain's Geraint Thomas took off in a solo effort to catch the escapees. His efforts proved fruitless however as Belgium’s Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil) won the 154.5-kms stage, ahead of France’s Jeremy Roy (FDJ) and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin).

Tomorrows stage sees the riders travel 199km from Montfort l’Amaury to Amilly, a stage that will link the two cities which hosted the last three time trials in Paris-Nice, with Montfort-l’Amaury opening the 2010 edition and Amilly giving start to the 2008 and 2009 ones. The riders will leave the Yvelines department for Loiret, passing Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines. Frontrunners will have to be on their guard with the crosswinds of the Beauce plain likely to break up the peloton. On paper, the most likely outcome in Amilly is a mass sprint with riders battling it out in the last 300 metres of the final straight. But with everything to play for a fresh legs for the season, anything can and no doubt will happen.