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.

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