Sometimes, the stages everyone expects to be decisive don't turn out to be so very decisive at all. Today's Paris-Nice stage which finished in Mende on the steep climb named after Laurent Jalabert, turned out to be that kind of race. The indecisive kind.
Lieuwe Westra, third on Wednesday, took his first ever Paris-Nice stage victory and narrowly missed taking the leader's jersey from Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins. Alejandro Valverde finished second, Wiggins third.
"I had good legs and today, it was truly super. It is incredible for me to succeed in beating such riders as these in a final like this. It is a great day in my life. I think it will likely end in a sprint tomorrow and the next day. But the crono on the Col d'Èze, we will see," said Lieuwe after his stage victory.
The general classification reshuffled, but did not overturn. In 2010, Alberto Contador crushed this final climb and went on to win the overall. This year, the race remains open and the final time trial on the Col d'Èze looks more decisive than ever.
Bradley Wiggins leads Westra by six seconds. Levi Leipheimer sits third at ten seconds, Alejandro Valverde, who picked up a couple seconds on the line, sits fourth at eighteen seconds. Tejay van Garderen struggled a bit on the steep slopes of the Jalabert and slipped to sixth at 39 seconds.
Another day, another breakaway. David Le Lay of Saur-Sojasun drew the lucky card today. Le Lay attacked after around 2 kilometers of racing. Simon Clarke of GreenEdge joined him, then Frederik Veuchelen of Vacansoleil and Yukiya Arashiro of Europcar. The foursome became The Breakaway, and by kilometer 14 they had a six-minute advantage. The field, not so interested in these guys. As a prize for his daylong effort, Veuchelen took home the mountains jersey.
Back in the bunch, Team Sky set about the business of protecthing the race lead of Bradley Wiggins. With around 60 kilometers left to race, the BMC Racing Team of Tejay van Garderen and the Movistar team of Alejandro Valverde joined in the chase. On the Côte de l'Estrade at around 30 kilometers to go, Kevin Seeldrayers of Astana and Laurens Ten Dam of Raboank made a dash for freedom from the main field. The two hung suspended between the break and the main field until inside 10 kilometers to race when they reached the front group.
By then, it was all over but the crying for the break. Veuchelen hung on over the Côte de Charbrits to take the mountains points, but by the early slopes of the final climb, it was all back together.
In the final wall-like kilometers of the Jalabert, Richie Porte went to the front and set a solid tempo for his teammate and race leader Wiggins. Alejandro Valverde and Levi Leipheimer sat close behind. Arnold Jeannesson of Française des Jeux-BigMat had a go at the Red Kite, but Wiggins proved quick to shut him down.
Westra saw his moment, and pounced. Wiggins did not - or could not - respond to the attack from Westra, and the Vancansoleil rider flew free to the line. Westra lost a few seconds at the finish, celebrating his first ever Paris-Nice stage victory. Westra also moved up to second in the general classification.
The top riders in the general classification, meanwhile, remained locked together. Valverde took the sprint behind Westra and scored the two second time bonus on the line. Wiggins, in strong defense of his race lead, finished third on the stage at same time with Valverde.
Levi Leipheimer finished fourth, also at same time. Tejay van Garderen struggled on the steep slopes of the Jalabert and finished twelfth, 24 seconds down on the Wiggins group. Van Garderen will need a good ride on the final crono on the Col d'Èze to climb back up the standings.
In the general classification, Wiggins leads Westra by six seconds. Then, Leipheimer at ten seconds and Valverde at eighteen. Simon Spilak is fifth at 37, Van Garderen is now sixth at 39.
Tomorrow's stage from Suze-la-Rousse to Sisteron starts out with some climbing, but ends in the flats. It's a good day for the break to go all the way, or for a sprinter's team to get busy with the chasing. It could go either way, I'm thinking.