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.

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