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UPDATED: Valverde holds off Gerrans at Paris-Nice

Valverde holds off late charging Gerrans for another win in his comeback season

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Race results

Complete coverage of the 2012 Paris-Nice

LE LAC DE VASSIVIÈRE, France (VN) — Alejandro Valverde lived up to expectations to win Tuesday’s hilltop finale at Paris-Nice in a tight uphill sprint over Simon Gerrans in Le Lac de Vassivière.

Valverde nipped Gerrans (GreenEdge) in a repeat of the Old Willunga Hill showdown at Tour Down Under in a photo-finish and earned a 10-second time bonus to suddenly make him a GC threat, now sixth at 20 seconds back.

“It will be hard to beat Wiggins,” Valverde said of the GC picture. “Today was important to try to win the stage. Now we have some terrain that favors me in the coming days. We will see what happens.”

Overnight leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) retained the leader’s jersey after finishing in the main pack in a 194km trudge across the cold and dreary winter landscape of central France.

The effort from Monday’s explosive stage that saw 21 riders finish in the elite front group showed on everyone with Tuesday’s comparatively more sluggish pace.

Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) was the last of the day’s long escape to survive. Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Movistar led the peloton to reel in the Frenchman with 6km remaining and reset the race for the uphill finale in Le Lac de Vassivière.

Valverde’s Movistar teammates led a late chase of Sergey Lagutan (Vacansoleil-DCM) and their leader came through over Gerrans, who surged late on top of the Cat. 3 finish climb.

Several riders attacked in the final kilometer, including Biel Kadri (Ag2r), Jeremie Galland (Saur-Sojasun) and Luis-Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), but Valverde hit the accelerator with 300 meters to go.

Gerrans appeared to mistime his sprint and swept past Valverde’s right shoulder, but just a meter too late.

Belgium’s Gianni Meersman took third-place while Briton Bradley Wiggins (Sky) retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey.

“It was really hard today, everybody was knackered,” said Wiggins, who leads Americans Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) by six and 11 seconds, respectively.

Van Garderen slotted into third overall after Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma), who started the day third, gave up the fight on the final punch to the finish line after contributing to the chase late in the stage.

“We just have to get through these next few days in one piece,” Van Garderen said before the start. “The climbing stage to Mende (on Friday) should see some real differences. I hope to have the legs to try something.”

RadioShack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck, who was already out of contention, pulled out of the race before the start, citing gastroenteritis.

The 70th “Race to the Sun” continues Wednesday with the five-climb, 178km fourth stage from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Rodez. Two second-category climbs and one third-category climb in the first half of the stage should provoke a major breakaway intent on winning the stage. The GC riders will be content to sit back if there are no threats in the group.

The final 20km feature two third-category climbs, including the short, but punchy finishing straight at 7.9 percent.

Wednesday’s parcours is ideal for Valverde to win another stage and take another 10-second time bonus, but Team Sky will be more than happy to let a breakaway fight for the spoils.