Andreas Kloden will never win a bunch sprint, but the veteran German showed off some top finishing speed to win out of a small bunch to nip Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez at the line in Thursday’s 193km fifth stage and claim the race leader’s yellow jersey at Paris-Nice.
No one seemed more surprised at the result than Sánchez, who just couldn’t get around the resilient “Klodi.”
RadioShack teammate Jani Brajkovic was pumping his fist in jubilation as Kloden churned to victory ahead of Sánchez, with Matteo Carrera (Vacansoleil) crossing the line third. With the time bonuses, Kloden also takes the leader’s jersey in a banner day for the Shack crew.
“Thanks to Janez, he led the sprint very well. I didn’t think I could beat Samuel Sanchez in a sprint. It’s a great performance by the whole team and it’s a victory by the team. I had good legs, I tried to stay with the best in the climb,” Kloden said. “Janez was there with me and there were other good riders like Martin and we were hoping to win the stage.”
The decisive attacks came on the Cat. 1 Col de la Mure, just nine kilometers from the finish. Eight riders broke clear, with Kloden and Brajkovic leading the way.
Eleven years after he won the “Race to the Sun,” Kloden is in the pole position going into Friday’s decisive 27km individual time trial, though nothing’s decided yet with the top 23 riders all stacked up within 29 seconds of each other.
Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), fourth at just 10 seconds back, will be the most dangerous rival to take the stage and the leader’s jerseys in Friday’s test against the clock.
“For sure, we’ll try to defend the jersey but we’ll see from day to day. Tomorrow is a hard time trial and also the last four days were very hard and nervous,” Kloden said. “I hope the legs stay like this and I can also do a good time trial.”
Hard test in mountains whittles field
The rollercoaster stage featured two first-category climbs, and while it wasn’t going to crown the eventual winner, it would certainly eliminate several would-be candidates.
The battle started in the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, when Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R), Roman Kreuziger (Astana) and a few other riders launched an unsuccessful attempt.
Dutchman Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil) took advantage of the move to break on his own, and was joined by four men: Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), David Lopez-Garcia (Movistar), Hubert Dupont (AG2R) and Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo). Romain Hardy (Bretagne-Schuller) joined the four on the descent and they caught Westra soon afterwards.
The six held a maximum lead of 4:10 shortly before Annonay at km79. The gap kept going down as RadioShack and Rabobank led the chase, maintaining a margin of around two minutes.
The pace increased again in the Col de Montreynaud when Dupont, Westra and Lopez-Garcia dropped their three breakaway companions.
At the front of the peloton, several prominent riders tried to bridge the gap — Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ) and Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) — before being reined in on the Côte de Vernoux.
On the Col de Comberon, Westra dropped Lopez-Garcia, then Dupont, but the Frenchman came back in the descent, quickly followed by the main pack. Shortly after the junction, FDJ riders seized the peloton’s reins.
Arthur Vichot crashed on the descent and was forced to abandon. The move placed four FDJ men in a seven-man breakaway which included Pierrick Fedrigo, Sandy Casar, Cedric Pineau, Jeremy Roy (all FDJ) Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Simon Spilak (Lampre) and Yuri Trofimov (Katusha).
But the seven were caught at the bottom of the last climb, the gruelling Col de la Mure. Astana took the reins over from FDJ and after attempts by Remy Di Gregorio and Roman Kreuziger, their teammate Robert Kiserlovski of Croatia broke away with Italy’s Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil).
The two were caught near the summit by Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), who reached the top in the front. On the descent, a group of eight emerged: Tony Martin (THR), Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil), Xavier Tondo (Movistar), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), Andreas Kloeden and Janez Brajkovic (both RadioShack), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel).
Led by Martin and Brajkovic, the group maintained a 20 seconds lead over the closest chasing bunch and were left to battle it out in the finale.
The 69th Paris-Nice could well be decided in Friday’s 27km individual time trial at Aix-en-Provence. The parcours crosses the heart of the Pays d’Aix and stays mostly flat along the Durance river, but the effort required on the Côte de la Cride could break the rhythm of pure power riders. Martin is the top favorite, but there are plenty still within striking range of the podium.
A few of the big names lost time that will be difficult to recover. Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), riding in his final Paris-Nice, slipped back to 50th at more than 5 minutes off the pace. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) played the loyal teammate, taking huge pulls to help pace Martin up the climb, and slipped back to 1:46 back. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) also moved backwards, falling to 1:44 back.
Others are still poised for a run at the podium with a strong performance Friday, including Levi Leipheimer, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal and Bradley Wiggins, all just 29 seconds off the pace.