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Tom-Jelte Slagter won stage 4 of Paris-Nice Wednesday in Belleville, France. Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) attacked to the stage win late in the 201-kilometer leg from Nevers.
Geraint Thomas (Sky) was second and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) was third.
“I knew the days before were feeling really hectic, so it was hard to tell where you were at,” said Slagter. “Today was my best possibility to do something. It suited me, but to win I didn’t expect.”
Overnight leader John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) lost contact with the front of the race late in the stage and ceded the yellow jersey to Thomas. The Welshman now leads the GC by three seconds over Degenkolb, with Slagter third, at four seconds.
Four men comprised the day’s breakaway: Valerio Agnoli (Astana), Laurent Didier (Trek Factory Racing), Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar), and Jesus Herrada Lopez (Movistar). The group built a maximum advantage north of five minutes, but the peloton kept a tight leash ahead of a tricky final 65km that included four categorized climbs.
The gap hovered near 30 seconds with 30km remaining.
Overall contender Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) suffered a poorly timed mechanical with 25km to go, forcing the Frenchman to take a bike change. The Swiss team sent back five riders to pace Chavanel up to the peloton, and he was in the bunch with 24km to go, but he would miss out when the pace ratcheted up moments later.
Chavanel was far from the only big name to suffer a mishap in the late stages of the day. Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) flatted and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Rafal Majka required three teammates to regain the peloton after a mechanical of his own.
Meanwhile, Sky pushed the pace at the front of the bunch with four riders. The British team lined out the peloton headed into the Cat. 2 Côte du Mont Brouilly, which topped out 14km from the finish.
The three escapees lost hope with 18km to go and Didier was the last of them to survive.
The pace up the 3km, 8.4-percent climb shredded the peloton to roughly 40 riders with 1km to go. The attacks came, with Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) and then Slagter attacking toward the summit. The latter’s solo move drew out Thomas and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) led the chase in the bunch.
“I trained really well but to be honest, I hadn’t planned on attacking on the final climb,” said Thomas. “I was even asking myself what I was doing there!”
Degenkolb fell off the pace on the climb, putting his jersey at risk.
Thomas made contact with Slagter on the decent and the duo led a collection of fractured chase groups with 12km to go. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) set off in pursuit of Thomas and Slagter with 8km to go. The surge re-shuffled the chase, with roughly eight riders riding into the gap, but Slagter and Thomas continued on with 10 seconds.
The yellow jersey group was 30 seconds behind and closing with 5km to go.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were among the riders to attack the chase group, but neither could shake his companions. Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) countered under the red kite and rode across to the gap, nearly catching Slagter and Thomas.
Slagter opened the sprint, however, keeping the Dutchman at bay and leaving Thomas to second. Kelderman held on for third.
“I know Thomas pretty good and I knew he’s fast and strong as well,” said Slagter. “I knew if I wanted to beat him, I needed to wait and wait until the right moment to sprint, or I might lose.”
Degenkolb finished seconds later, but it was too late to defends his overall lead.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Thomas. “On the Friday before the team I was told I would lead the team. Paris-Nice is one of the biggest races in the world.”
Paris-Nice continues Thursday with the 153km fifth stage, from Crêches-sur-Saône to Rive-de-Gier. The stage features four categorized climbs, including the Cat. 2 Côte de Sainte-Catherine, which summits 12.5km from the finish.
Matti Breschel did not start stage 4. The Dane is suffering from injuries resulting from a crash following the final stage of the Tour of Oman, where Breschel collided with a mattress while descending to the team’s hotel.
“Matti has done three stages in high pace and his rhythm on the bike is good, but the pain in his hand has grown worse and I think it would be wiser to abandon the race at this moment,” Tinkoff director Fabrizio Guidi said in a press release. “The race kilometers here would have been good for his form, but he has to be able to handle his bike as well, so he’s going home to get some training done instead and we can only hope for a speedy recovery.”