It was another uphill sprint today at Paris-Nice and Gianni Meersman of Lotto-Belisol jumped the fastest to win stage 4 in Rodez. Meersman, who finished third yesterday in Le Lac de Vassivière, outsprinted a field of some 60 riders to take his first ever Paris-Nice stage win. Grega Bole of Lampre finished second, Lieuwe Westra of Vacansoleil was third.
"I am very happy right now. Yesterday, it didn't work out for me, and I was beaten by Alejandro Valverde, but today, I was stronger than him. In the final, I found myself a little too far out, but I saw that the finish was flat, and so I waited until the last minute to attack, and I suceeded," said Meersman after the stage.
Simon Gerrans, who finished second to Valverde on Tuesday's stage, crashed at six kilometers to go, and could not contest the finish today. Over on Twitter, he said he was "devastated" to crash and would be "a little sore" tomorrow.
The top riders in the general classification remained unchanged today. Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky leads Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step by 6 seconds. Tejay van Garderen sits third at 11 seconds, Sylvain Chavanel is fourth at 14. Alejandro Valverde, meanwhile, who won Tuesday's stage, lurks in seventh at 20 seconds.
It took six kilometers of racing for the day's break to get established. Rèmy Di Gregorio was the first to try his chances, but the bunch quickly brought him back. Jean-Christophe Péraud of AG2R-La Mondiale and Pierrick Frédrigo of Français des Jeux escaped together at kilometer 6, and soon Leigh Howard of GreenEdge, Luis Angel Mate Mardones of Cofidis, and Bart De Clerq of Lotto-Belisol joined them to form a break of five.
Still, it took the five riders another dozen or so kilometers to convince the main field to let them ride. For his pains, Mate Mardones took over the lead in the mountains classification at the end of the day.
In the main field, Rabobank went to the front, perhaps with stage victory ambitions or maybe as punishment for their lackluster results so far in this race. Lampre was feeling hopeful, and they joined in the chasing. With 25 kilometers to race, the margin hovered at the magic minute mark, and just outside 15 kilometers to go, the break's day in the sun had ended.
On the côte d’Aubert le Crès, Thomas De Gendt went adventuring, but by 8 kilometers to go, it was all back together.
Not surpisingly, Movistar went to the front with 5 kilometer to go. No doubt they had an ambition to secure another stage victory - and the time bonus - for Alejandro Valverde. On the La côte de Bourran, Valverde did nothing. Instead, Andreas Klöden went up the road solo, and very nearly stayed away to the finish.
Only in the final 500 meters did the sprint overtake Klöden. Bole went first, perhaps spurred by the need to catch Klöden, while Meersman played the waiting game. Sometimes, good things come to those who wait. Meersman timed his sprint perfectly to take his first ever Paris-Nice stage victory.
Tomorrow, Paris-Nice finishes in Mende with a steep, uphill finish. It's an important test for the general classification contenders, and by the end of tomorrow's stage, we will know who has brought his climbing legs to the party. Bradley Wiggins, Levi Leipheimer, and Tejay van Garderen remain locked together at the top of the general classification. But Alejandro Valverde, known for his blinding uphill speed, sits just 20 seconds behind.