March 12, 2011 5 Comments
Television images of Rémy di Gregorio‘s face in the final kilometre laid bare how deep he was having to dig to preserve his dwindling lead over his fast-closing pursuers. But it was worth it in the end as the French Astana rider clung on for a narrow victory on the longest – and also the windiest, wettest and most crash-strewn – stage of this year’s Paris-Nice.
This year’s Paris-Nice has been a consistently exciting race, and this penultimate stage from Brignoles to Biot-Sophia Antipolis was arguably the best of the lot. It started with a minute’s silence for the victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and then set off in conditions which could almost have been designed to reflect that terrible disaster in microcosm, with rain and gale force winds not exactly in keeping with the ‘Race to the Sun’.
With five climbs to negotiate and concerns about the wet and windy conditions no doubt prominent in the peloton’s minds, they were reluctant to let a breakaway go in the early stages as the bunch repeatedly stretched, broke and reformed on the climbs. Eventually, on the run up to the Côte de Cabris – the first of two back-to-back first-category climbs – Karsten Kroon (BMC) and Eric Berthou (Bretagne-Schuller) finally broke clear, building a gap of 6:50.
With the peloton closing in having negotiated the final slippery descent of the Côte de Gourdon, Kroon dropped Berthou shortly after starting the first of two 18km loops of Boit-Sophia Antipolis. Nonetheless, the pack gently pulled him back in, finally completing the catch with 13km left.
Di Gregorio attacked immediately, and only Leopard-Trek‘s Linus Gerdemann made a concerted attempt to bridge the gap, but he was eventually drawn back in by the Movistar-led peloton. With two kilometres left the stage hung in the balance, with di Gregorio’s lead a fragile 18 seconds.
Then, near catastrophe. As the Frenchman pushed himself, he slipped on a white cross-walk marking. His rear wheel kicked wildly out to the left and then snapped back to the right, dislodging his right foot from its pedal, but he somehow managed to stay upright and continue on without losing time.
At the kilometre flag, Movistar’s Xavier Tondó then launched a counter-attack of his own, but he was unable to shake the other leading contenders, with the yellow jersey of Tony Martin remaining glued to his rear wheel. The attack also meant that di Gregorio’s lead was rapidly eroded, but the Frenchman dug deep into his reserves and clung on to claim victory by a slender five seconds. It was his first stage win since the 2006 Tour de l’Avenir.
Tondó was passed on the approach to the finish by first Samuel Sánchez – second for the second time in three days – and then Sky‘s Rigoberto Uran. Second-placed Andréas Klöden and race leader Martin arrived two seconds later, with the other key GC men close behind.
Several other riders were less fortunate on the greasy roads. Lieuwe Westra, Heinrich Haussler (twice), Tejay van Garderen, Vladimir Gusev and Konstantin Sivtsov were deposited on the tarmac in separate incidents, while Robert Kiserlovski ended up under a parked lorry after coming off his bike. And several other big names, including Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale), Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) abandoned either before or during the stage.
Di Gregorio was ecstatic afterwards:
For sure, I was missing moments like this. I waited so long to win a beautiful stage like this. It took a lot of work and a lot of questioning. I’m glad to offer this victory to those who kept believing in me. It was close, but to win like this you must take measured risks. With 100 metres to go, it was a real relief.
Tony Martin maintained his 36-second advantage on Klöden, but admitted it had been a tough stage:
That was a difficult day.You had to avoid all the crashes. Even when you went around the corners slowly you could find yourself on the ground. I am content that I made it to the finish in one piece.
The race concludes on Sunday with a 124km stage around Nice which includes five categorised climbs, including the first-category Col d’Èze less than 14km from the finish. RadioShack and Sky, on behalf of Klöden and third-placed Bradley Wiggins, are certain to attack, on what could yet prove to be a dramatic final day of Paris-Nice. The one thing it will most certainly not be is processional.
Stage 7 result:
1. Rémy di Gregorio (Astana) 5:46:23
2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:05
3. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +0:05
4. Andréas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:07
5. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +0:07
1. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) 30:46:17
2. Andréas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:36
3. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:41
4. Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) +1:10
5. Jean-Christophe Péraud (AG2R-La Mondiale) +1:21