By Andrew Hood
It wasn’t a classic setup for a sprint, but Jean Patrick Nazon won one for his La Francaise des Jeux teammates in the opening stage of the Criterium International on Saturday in northern France.
Rider after rider tried to escape the clutches of the peloton in the finale of the 192-km stage starting and ending in Charleville-Mezieres, but hard work by FDJ kept it together long enough for Nazon to win the mass sprint.
In a dress rehearsal for the kickoff of next weekend’s Ardennes Classics, Nazon won his first race of the season in 4 hours, 52 minutes, 26 seconds (39.39 kph) on a cool, blustery day. Nazon won by a bike length ahead of Alessio’s Angelo Furlan and compatriot Francois Simon (Bon Jour).
“I had doubts that we would arrive for a sprint because the peloton was driving very hard,” said Nazon, younger brother of Damien Nazon of Bon Jour. “I had the whole team working for me and I put down a good sprint. I was obligated to win the sprint for the team.”
Earlier in the stage, Frenchman Stephane Berges got some good TV time for AG2R in a break that was up to 3:15 with 40 kilometers to go. Phonak’s Cedric Fragniere gave chase, but U.S. Postal Service moved to the front and put an end to that.
Lance Armstrong, making his second start of the season, rode with his Posties protecting his flanks. With 20 kms to go, Victor Hugo Pena covered a break, then Floyd Landis covered a move by Coast. With 13 kms to go, Laurent Dufaux (Alessio) built up a 23-second gap. Several other riders tried to bridge, including Credit Agricole’s new captain, Christophe Moreau. AG2R’s Jaan Kirsipuu made a move but was pulled back with 4 kms to go.
Saeco and Alessio joined in the chase but FDJ moved up with three riders to set up Nazon for the win.
The Criterium International continues Sunday with two stages. The morning brings a 98.5-km climbing stage, then the field races against the clock in an 8.5-km individual time trial.
CRITERIUM INTERNATIONAL, March 30-31; Stage 1: Charleville-Mezieres; 1. Jean Patrick Nazon (F), La Francaise des Jeux, 192km in 4:52:26 (39.39 kph); 2. Angelo Furlan (I), Alessio; 3. Francois Simon (F), Bon Jour; 4. Thor Hushovd (N); 5. Baden Cooke (Aus); 6. Tomas Konecny (Czh); 7. Christophe Capelle (F); 8. Guennadi Nikhalov (Rus); 9. Torsten Nitsche (G); 10. Laurent Brochard (F); 11. Igor Astarloa (Sp); 12. Constantino Zaballa (Sp); 13. Inigo Landaluze (Sp); 14. Santiago Perez (Sp); 15. Xavier Florencio (Sp); 16. Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Sp); 17. Christophe Agnolutto (F); 18. Inaki Isasi (Sp); 19. Matthias Buxhofer (A); 20. Jakob Piil (Dk); Also; 25. Patrice Halgand (F); 39. Jens Voigt (G); 53. Rik Verbrugghe (B); 58. Didier Rous (F); 64. Christophe Moreau (F); 70. Brad McGee (Aus); 78. Richard Virenque (F); 82. Florent Brard (F); 83. Sandy Casar (F); 94. Lance Armstrong (USA), USPS; 143. Marco Pantani (I); 149. Joseba Beloki (Sp), all same time; 160. Stephane Berges (F), at 5:09.