Michael Albasini (Orica GreenEdge) won stage 4 at Paris-Nice on Thursday in Saint-Vallier, France.
Maxim Iglinskyi (Astana) was second and Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was third.
American Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) maintained his overall lead.
“I actually wasn’t sure of my condition when I came here,” said Albasini. “I was feeling good, but we couldn’t race [GP di] Lugano and my last race before that was three weeks ago last Wednesday. Without racing, it’s hard to understand what’s going on with your body. I’m super happy to start the season with an early, important win. I’m a bit surprised, too.”
Albasini wasn’t the only one surprised with his surge to the line.
The last four riders of a seven-man breakaway group were caught by the peloton with 14 kilometers left. BMC Racing took over on front of the peloton for its GC leader Tejay van Garderen before another group, which featured overall leader Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), jumped ahead.
Albasini was also part of that lead group and launched his bid for the line after chaotic final run-in, which saw attacks from a number of GC riders and stage hunters.
“At first I thought I would try to get Jens [Voigt] up there in the sprint,” said Albasini. “Then, the attacks started. As I covered them, I knew I had a chance for the finish.”
The Swiss countered a late attack and came off Iglinsky’s wheel for the win.
“At the end, there was a roundabout 500 meters or so from the finish,” said Albasini. “There were two guys about 50 meters ahead at the point. They started sprinting, and I knew I had to go. If I didn’t, it would have been too late. I opened my sprint and went full gas. Once I overtook them, I was able to maintain control all the way to the line.
“The stages yesterday and today were ideal for me,” said Albasini, who finished 1:05 stage 3 winner Talansky on Wednesday. “I suffered in the climbs, but I did my best to stay with the group. I was patient in the end to cover the moves and arrive in the sprint.
Iglinsky said he simply jumped too early in pursuit of the two attackers.
“[Andrei] Grivko covered the first attack and brought it back,” he said. “I went to sprint at 350 meters to go, because there was a gap and Grivko shouted at me to take it. In the end I was a little bit early and Albasini passed me for the win after sitting on my wheel. My legs felt good all day, and from the start we knew it was going to be a stage for us.”
Velits was disappointed with how he played the finale.
“I’m happy about my legs and my condition, but have a bittersweet feeling with my result,” he said. “I did a mistake in the final meters and lost my position in the sprint. I couldn’t contest the win because of this. But ok, overall I am happy with my condition and my position in the GC. I will try and fight for the position tomorrow, along with [Sylvain] Chavanel.”
Talansky said he expected an aggressive stage and the intermediate mountain day lived up to that billing.
“When we talked about it last night, we knew I was going to be on my own for the last 30km,” he said. “Mentally, I was prepared for it. I will do everything I can to keep the jersey.”
Van Garderen, who was pegged as a major contender before the race began on Sunday, finished 12th in stage 4. He is 16 seconds behind Talansky.
BMC Racing and Omega Pharma were among the teams to push the pace at the front, trying to spring van Garderen and Sylvain Chavanel, respectively.
“It was a little windy up top on the climbs, otherwise we were going to try something,” van Garderen told VeloNews. “We saw Talansky was isolated early, so maybe we can use that to our advantage. Tomorrow will be an important day. I would rather not be 16 seconds behind but I am feeling good.”
“Today I had really good legs. I’m happy about my race so far,” said Chavanel. “Today I tried, but when I attacked there was headwind, so I decided to not really go deep.”
The field had a tough time on the 200km course, which featured seven categorized climbs. A number of top riders found themselves dropped late in the race, including Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Ivan Basso (Cannondale), and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM).
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), a pre-race GC favorite, withdrew from the race after suffering from a fever overnight.
“I had no appetite and a pain in my stomach today, and when I went to eat and drink I couldn’t,” he said. “I could have finished today, but I would have been unable to help the team, and probably out of the time limit. Tomorrow I will go home and I should be able to train again in a few days. My next race is [Volta a] Catalunya and I should be ready to go by then. In the end it is probably better not to go too deep and kill myself here in Paris-Nice.”
The race resumes Friday with the 176km stage 5 from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to la Montagne de Lure. Another six categorized climbs, including a Cat. 1 at the finish, await the field.
The race ends Sunday.