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Tour de la Provence: Davide Ballerini snatches opening-stage sprint

Julian Alaphilippe lights up race with attacks in season debut for world champion.

Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) won a blistering sprint against blustery winds to open the Tour de la Provence in France on Thursday.

With an early jump, Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) looked to start the 2021 season the same way he ended last year with a win. The French national champion saw a two-bike-length gap disappear in the final meters as Ballerini shot past him for the win. Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) came across the line third.

“I was close to the barriers, but I found the space,” Ballerini said. “It was not easy to sprint. I think Démare took five, six meters and I tried to get his wheel, but I found the speed in the end. The wind was coming from the right, and I found the space and speed for the win.”

The 26-year-old Ballerini also grabs the lead in a winning season debut for Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

‘Alapanache’ attacks

The final circuit on the hilly route saw an early breakaway duly neutralized, and the lumpy roads saw a flash of action as the peloton ramped up in the final hour of racing. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) jumped on the day’s final climbs, with Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) hitching on for a ride.

Groupama-FDJ and UAE-Team-Emirates led the chase, hoping to set up their sprinters. The leading trio carved out a promising gap in the closing kilometers, nudged along by a helpful tailwind. The gap was down to 25 seconds with 10km to when the leading threesome hit the coast for the final run to the line.

The sprinter trains surged to the front in the tug-of-war between the attackers and the main pack. Deceuninck-Quick-Step put a few riders on the front to slow down the chase in the nail-biter, but the catch was made with just under 2km to go.

“We have Julian for the GC, and he is the world champion,” Ballerini said. “We tried something with Julian with about 100km to go, and it shows he has good legs.”

Early romp along Côte d’Azur

The four-day stage race opened with fine springlike weather in southern France. With a slate of races canceled around the globe due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the pack was filled with hitters, including 14 WorldTour teams in the field.

The 182km stage from Aubagne to Six-Four-les-Plages opened with a first-category climb, and hit three more third-category hills in the final hour before the fast run into the finish. Lilian Calmejane (Ag2r-Citroën) and Delio Fernández (Delko) peeled away early, and dangled out there for the middle part of the stage without gaining too much advantage.

Unlike some of the more intense action the peloton saw at the Étoile de Bessèges last week, the peloton seemed to enjoy a sunny frolic along France’s spectacular Côte d’Azur. Things finally heated up in the final hour of racing.

The race continues Friday with the 174.7km second stage from Cassis to Manosque in the heart of France’s Provence region. There are three climbs stacked up in the final hour of racing, with a steep ramp in the final kilometer that should favor the likes of Alaphilippe.