NICE, France (VN) — French champion Arthur Vichot (FDJ.fr) won the eighth and final stage and climbed into third place overall as Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) avoided a late-race crash to win Paris-Nice Sunday.
Betancur won two stages en route to becoming the first Colombian to win the “Race to the Sun.” Betancur counted on his Ag2r teammates to control an explosive final stage over five rated climbs above the Cote d’Azur.
“My team was fantastic, and I could not have won without their help,” Betancur said. “I am very happy. We showed we are the strongest team in this race.”
World champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) was swept into the fences in a crash in the final 150 meters, but still managed to cross the line to finish second overall despite being unable to challenge for the stage victory.
Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) attacked over the top of the Col d’Eze in an impressive showing, yet was caught at the line as Vichot dashed to victory ahead of JJ Rojas (Movistar). Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was gapped on Col d’Eze, and Vichot nudged onto the podium to secure third.
“It’s a great satisfaction to win the stage and to reach the podium,” Vichot said. “Betancur is a pure puncheur and this Paris-Nice was ideal for him. For me, to win a stage and reach the podium is magnificent.”
It was a fitting finale for a wide-open Paris-Nice that did not include time trials or a major mountain summit. Time bonuses proved decisive, and Betancur, who will make his Tour de France debut this summer, proved he was up to the task by fending off final-day attacks to secure his first major stage race victory of his young pro career.
Rojas thanked his team for putting him in position to win the stage.
“I got a bit boxed in and couldn’t overtake Vichot in the end,” Rojas said in a team release. “I’m sad for me, but especially for my teammates, because they relied on me all the way to the finish, they were sensational.”
Agitated start, Busche attacks again
With five rated climbs packed in during a short, explosive stage, there was no shortage of fireworks. Five riders did not start: Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Steve Cummings (BMC Racing), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), and Julien Simon (Cofidis).
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) won the first intermediate sprint to defend his points jersey, but he admitted it was going to be a long day in the saddle, saying before the start: “It’s been a nice week racing here, especially with the nice weather. I will do what I can to defend the points jersey, it all depends on what the GC guys decide to do. Either way, it’s been an ideal preparation for the classics.”
A big group pulled clear and carved open a one-minute lead 28 kilometers into the stage: Xavier Zandio (Sky), Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Jerome Pineau (IAM Cycling), Jens Keukeleire (Orica), Elia Favilli (Lampre), Francesco Gavazzi (Astana), Moreno Hofland (Belkin), Matthew Busche and Danilo Hondo (Trek Factory Racing), Jerome Cousin (Europcar), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis), Michel Koch and Marco Marcato (Cannondale), and Anthony Delaplace (Bretagne-Seche).
After two climbs, the gap grew to 1:50. As expected, riders started to abandon the race, including Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma), Taylor Phinney (BMC), and Tyler Farrar (Garmin); they had little to gain from the bumpy parcours.
Movistar and Astana started to up the pace, and the front group dissolved on the Cat. 1 Cote de Peille. Nine riders remained clear from the break, including Busche, while Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) surged out of the GC group. Catching a ride were Simon Spilak (Katusha) and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin).
Ag2r was under the gun to try to control the attacks as the GC group continued to shrink under the pace. The Nibali group linked up with the leaders, but just as quickly, Ag2r reeled in both groups, and it came together coming toward the final ramp up Col d’Eze. Yuri Trofimov (Katusha) made a brave solo move on the descent.
Up and down d’Eze
Col d’Eze towers above the Cote d’Azur and is a favorite training climb for the many pros living in Nice and Monaco. For this year’s Paris-Nice, the route looped around the southern approach and descended on the easier, less steep and smooth descent back toward Nice. With Ag2r and Movistar leading the chase, Trofimov was soon reeled in heading toward the base of the climb.
The remaining group shattered under the pace up Col d’Eze, with more looking for the quick road back to Nice. David Lopez (Sky) bolted clear midway up the climb, just as Nibali threw in the towel, slipping off the back of the GC group.
Betancur looked to be struggling, but he calmly stayed glued to Costa’s wheel as riders such as Kelderman upped the pace. Stybar, who started third, was also struggling.
Near the summit, Schleck showed signs of life with an attack that drew out Spilak. The front group continued to melt, with less than two dozen riders finding the legs to stay in the chase.
Spilak and Schleck held a slender 10-second gap on the Betancur chasers on the big-ring, pedaling descent. With 7km to go, the gap grew to 18 seconds as Movistar and Lampre led the chase. Schleck bravely attacked under the red kite with the peloton breathing down his neck, and was caught just short of the line in a heartbreak for the Luxembourg veteran.