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Contador chugged away on the short, but steep 3km Mende climb to stake his claim for another crown, pulling the double on a day when temperatures never climbed above freezing.
But the cold temperatures seemed to put the freeze on everyone and Contador said he didn’t have his typical punch, winning 10 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) to carve out a 24-second grip on the yellow jersey.
“I waited to attack on the last climb because I didn’t really feel that great. It was very, truly cold, throughout the entire stage. I can only hope it will get warmer in the coming stages,” Contador said. “Nothing is won yet. The hardest part is still yet to come. There are still three stages and Paris-Nice is a race that’s hard to control.”
Contador was alluding to his infamous bonk in last year’s Paris-Nice, when he lost time while leading and eventually ceded the overall to compatriot Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) to finish fourth overall.
Overnight leader Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) struggled to match the pace when Contador attacked with just under 2km to go. Voigt, who snagged the yellow jersey with a gritty ride Wednesday in Aurillac, crossed the line 12th at 44 seconds back and slipped to sixth overall at 34 seconds off the pace.
David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) did well under the extreme conditions, finishing 25th at 1:01 back and maintaining a top-10 with ninth at 1:03 back. Garmin-Transitions’ Thomas Peterson was 36th at 1:34 back and Tom Danielson was 45th at 1:56.
Cold snaps Leipheimer’s chances
You know it’s cold when a guy who grew up in Montana talked about how frosty conditions were.
The frigidly cold temperatures kept Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) from riding at his best, who started the day eighth at 24 seconds back.
Leipheimer couldn’t stay with Contador’s winning surge with just under 2km to go and rolled across with a group at 1:08 back and slipped to 16th at 1:23 off the pace.
“It’s just really cold. I guess before it was amusingly cold, but this isn’t very fun,” Leipheimer said. “It’s our job. Like any professional, we have days that we’re just going through the motions and that’s kind of where I am right now. I am not riding that great and this is obviously miserable weather. It’s good training, that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Following his strong fourth-place showing in his season debut at Volta ao Algarve, Leipheimer’s season is very different than the past four years, when he roared into February to win three consecutive Tour of California victories.
With California moved to May, Leipheimer is using Paris-Nice now as preparation for goals for later in the year.
“I was coming off a group of like 20 riders, that’s not very good for the morale. It’s just training and building for later on,” he said. “You’re wearing a lot of clothes. You never feel great when you’re wearing all those clothes, but you have to, or you get too cold.”
Spanish armada firing away
A six-man breakaway that peeled away in the opening 15km was eventually reeled in by Saxo Bank and Astana with less than 10km to go to set up the final showdown.
Contador had Oscar Pereiro and Dmitri Fofonov from Astana to get him to the base of the Mende climb. The two-time Tour de France champion waited patiently for riders such as Christophe Le Mevel (FDJeux) to attack and for the steepness of the climb to whittle away some of his rivals.
Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) struggled under the steep grades, but Wednesday’s winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas) did well to pace Kreuziger and then hang on to finish 20th to remain eighth overall at 54 seconds back.
Contador never quite opened up the huge gaps that he’s accustomed to once he surged away and a handful of his compatriots are nipping at his heels.
Joining Contador were other Spanish riders who clogged the top-5 in both stage and the GC.
Only Roman Kreuziger (Liguigas), now third overall at 25 seconds back, and Thomas Voeckler (BBox), fifth on the stage at 20 seconds back, prevented the top-5 Spanish sweep on Thursday.
Valverde, who struggled in the opening day prologue, bounced back into contention with a strong, second-place performance to climb into second overall. Along with Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), Valverde kept Contador on a short, 10-second leash.
Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) found his legs in the relatively easier final kilometer to pass Rodríguez and finish third on the stage in the same time as Valverde and slot into fifth overall at 29 seconds back.
Defending champion Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) finished ninth in the stage to keep alive his podium hopes, now fourth at 28 seconds back.
Early move breaks the ice
More cold weather “welcomed” a weary peloton in Maurs for the 173.5km hilly march to the decisive summit finish atop the Cat. 1 climb up La Croix Neuve, named in honor of Laurent Jalabert.
The bumpy, five-climb stage was ideal for a breakaway, and several riders tried in vain to escape the clutches early, including Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack) and Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
The day’s main break finally pulled clear at in the opening 13km , in the move were: Jerome Pineau (Quick Step), Julien Loubet (Ag2r), Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), Amael Moinard (Cofidis), Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil) and Jean-Marc Marino (Saur Sojasun).
With the non-threatening group up the road, Saxo Bank gladly let them take their chances. The leaders opened up a four-minute gap at 40km.
Moinard knew the roads well, since he was in a similar breakaway in 2007 when Contador eventually won the stage.
“This is the first day we tried to get into a breakaway because things will open up in the peloton,” said Cofidis sport director Francis Van Londersele during the stage. “We don’t have too much confidence in the break, because Saxo Bank is controlling the stage. We still hope to have Moinard in good position for the final climb.”
After topping a second-category climb, the route dropped down to the spectacular Gorges du Lot before two more third-category climbs to the approach to the finale. Saxo Bank was determined to give Voigt at least a fair shot of defending his hard-fought yellow jersey and kept the gap steady at about three minutes with 80km to go.
The gap grew to more than four minutes after the day’s third of three third-category climbs, prompting Astana to surge to the front.
The 68th Paris-Nice continues Friday with the 157km fifth stage from Pernes-les-Fontaines to Aix-en-Provence.
Snow on the day’s first climb might force organizers to change the route to avoid the Cat. 2 Col de Murs at 647m at 40km into the race. There are three more third-category climbs sprinkled along the route that should push the race into milder weather.
If the sprinters can make it over the climbs, a complicated and slightly rising finish into downtown Aix-en-Provence will surely be their last shot at victory in this year’s Paris-Nice.
Forecasters are calling for temperatures to climb into the low 50s by the afternoon. After four days in bitter cold, that will feel like the Tour de Langkawi.
Top-10 stage results:
1. Alberto Contador Astana
2. Alejandro Valverde Caisse D’epargne
3. Samuel Sanchez Euskaltel – Euskadi at 00:10
4. Joaquim Rodriguez Katusha Team at 00:18
5. Thomas Voeckler Bbox Bouygues Telecom at 00:20
6. Damiano Cunego Lampre – Farnese at 00:21
7. Roman Kreuziger Liquigas-Doimo at 00:21
8. Christophe Le Mevel Francaise Des Jeux at 00:29
9. Luis-leon Sanchez Caisse D’epargne at 00:29
10. Reine Taaramae Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne at 00:31
Preliminary GC standings:
1. Alberto Contador Astana
2. Alejandro Valverde Caisse D’epargne
3. Roman Kreuziger Liquigas-Doimo at 00:25
4. Luis-leon Sanchez Caisse D’epargne at 00:28
5. Samuel Sanchez Euskaltel – Euskadi at 00:29
6. Jens Voigt Team Saxo Bank at 00:34
7. Joaquim Rodriguez Katusha Team at 00:36
8. Peter Sagan Liquigas-Doimo at 00:54
9. David Millar Garmin – Transitions at 01:03
10. Reine Taaramae Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne at 01:06