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A TURN-UP FOR THE BOOKS

If Friday?s stage to La Montagne de Lure was wholly predictable, the weekend was anything but, as Alberto Contador ran out of fuel in the closing stages on Saturday, and then launched an audacious attack to recover a race that had looked to be in the bag 48 hours earlier.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, Contador probably learned more from Saturday and Sunday?s stages, than he did during Friday?s formality. His friend, Luis Leon Sanchez of Caisse d?Epargne profited when Contador ?bonked? and lost almost three minutes in no time at all towards the end of Saturday?s relentlessly tough stage.

That sparked accusations that Astana somehow wanted Contador to fail, having left him with no support at a crucial time in the race. Perhaps it was all a part of the masterplan to undermine him, show that he was not infallible, and assert once and for all that Lance Armstrong is the leader.

The reality, though, is that Astana?s team was weak. Even the stronger helpers, such as Benjamin Noval, Haimar Zubeldia and, to a lesser extent, Sergio Paulinho, were nowhere near good enough to help. Yaroslav Popovych had a Saturday which reminded everyone why Silence-Lotto were so dissatisfied with him during last year?s Tour. It meant Contador was left isolated.

Whereas the Bruyneel plan had been executed to perfection on Friday, on Saturday it was as if the directeur sportif on the ground, Alain Gallopin, had left the manual in his hotel room. Contador said he neglected to eat and drink enough early in the stage and when Luis Leon Sanchez attacked, his legs turned to jelly. Gallopin?s assessment that Contador screwed up because all he had to do was watch Sanchez seems a little harsh.

It wasn?t the first time Contador was left alone. On the day the race split in the crosswinds, he was by himself and had to chase, alone, to get back to the front group. In many respects, it is sad that Astana took their biggest guns to the Tour of California, a bland burger and fries of a race, leaving Contador to sample Christian Prudhomme and François Lemarchand?s innovative eight-course taster menu.

On Sunday, Contador was again alone, but this time on the offensive. He launched a bold attack on the Col de la Porte, and although he didn?t gain the time he needed on La Turbie or the Col d?Eze, it was, without doubt, a move that had the viewer on the edge of their seats.

There was more to Paris-Nice than the internal politics of Astana. While the route encouraged drama, there were several highly motivated riders, keen to impress.

But the big story will undoubtedly be the fall-out from the rise and subsequent fall of Alberto Contador. There are rumours of disharmony in Astana?s ranks, giving rise to conspiracy theories that Contador had been hung out to dry. Some see the collapse of his team as evidence that the support for Contador is not wholehearted, whereas it was for Leipheimer on the west coast.

Lance Armstrong?s comment on the social network Twitter after Contador?s miscalculation on Saturday, sounded smug. ?Unfortunate day for Alberto. Amazing talent but still a lot to learn.? But if that is to be submitted as evidence that Armstrong somehow relished his team-mate?s misfortune, he also wrote: ?Appears Alberto ?bonked?. Happens to us all. Not that uncommon in endurance sports. It?s miserable. He?ll be back fightin? tomorrow.?

And the following day, he Twittered: ?Alberto going for it big time. He?s a tough dude. He can still win Paris-Nice with the way it?s going. Go man, go.?

The problem with all these comments is that they are a public relations exercise, nothing more. They purport to be a person?s heart-felt thoughts and reactions but really they are remarks meant for public consumption and give no great insight into Armstrong?s real feelings.

If Armstrong is going to indulge in micro-blogging, he will accept that his comments will be put under the microscope.

Meanwhile, over in Italy, Andreas Klöden won the time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico to take a big step towards overall victory. Had there been a meaningful time trial midway through Paris-Nice, Contador would no doubt have won it and been even further ahead.

Instead, he counted the cost of a miscalculation but, in true Astana style, they are turning defeat into victory. Gallopin reckons that losing with panache is what endears a rider to the French public and, as a result, Contador, Astana and perhaps by association, Armstrong will have a warmer reception this July.

Now that, is putting a positive spin on things.

PARIS-NICE WINNERS & LOSERS

WINNERS

Luis Leon Sanchez Last year won the final stage on the Promenade des Anglais. This time he wrapped up the overall win there.

Antonio Colom Journeyman tester who climbed and sprinted as well for Katusha as he did at the Dauphiné for Astana a couple of years back.

Tony Martin Attacked repeatedly, raced aggressively, and deservedly clung onto the king of the mountains jersey by the skin of his teeth.

Sylvain Chavanel Just about kept his place on the podium, even if he had to shelter behind a car and take an illegal bottle to do it.

Rabobank For splitting the race wide open on stage three?

Christian Vande Velde Great attack and descent to hold off Contador, who was flying.

Jeremy Roy Won his stage by taking a chance and committing fully to it.

Kevin Seeldrayers Impressive Paris-Nice debut for the 22-year-old, netting him the white jersey.

LOSERS

Rabobank ?for having three riders in the front seven on stage three and getting second, third and sixth.

Juan Manuel Garate Put himself in perfect position to challenge Contador, then went ?pop? in the most spectacular way, losing five minutes on La Montagne de Lure.

Thomas Voeckler Spent too long watching Tony Martin on the run-in to stage five, allowing Roy to ride away for the win. Crashed the following day and broke his collarbone, ruining his spring.

Alberto Contador Not for the way he raced, but that ?firing a gun? victory salute has to go. We?re not being overly sensitive, but it?s totally inappropriate.

Maxime Montfort Had expected a lot more of himself but simply wasn?t at the races. Was disappointed with 12th overall.

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CW?S FAVOURITES?

Before Paris-Nice, we selected our favourites. Now it?s time to assess how they got on.

*****

Alberto Contador 4th overall

We thought he couldn?t be beaten, and on Friday afternoon we were smoking a fat, celebratory cigar. We were wrong.

****

Rinaldo Nocentini 16th at 7-53

Last year?s runner-up was one of the first big names in difficulty on La Montagne de Lure.

Sylvain Chavanel 3rd at 1-09

He won a stage, led for a few days, gave it his all. Not a bad result.

Frank Schleck 2nd at 1-00

Rode into second place without really doing much. Was the best of the rest every day.

***

Dan Martin DNS stage three

Fell ill at the start of the week, woke up on Tuesday feeling awful, so did not start.

Yaroslav Popovych 23rd at 17-04

We were expecting a return to form for the Ukrainian, but it just didn?t happen.

Roman Kreuziger DNF stage eight

Pulled out on the last day, complaining of tendonitis in his knee. Had been lying 15th.

**

Nicolas Roche 62nd at 44-33

Got in a break one day, but the GC challenge never materialised.

Carlos Barredo 37th at 29-27

Very much Quick Step?s support staff for Chavanel.

David Moncoutie 35th at 28-17

Doesn?t look a great result on paper, but well up there all day on Saturday.

*

Cadel Evans 21st at 14-40

Just starting his season and seemed to be riding rather randomly, probably because his team was not doing anything overall.

Juan Manuel Garate 14th at 5-14

But for a collapse on Friday, would have been on the podium.

David Millar DNF stage eight

Was going reasonably well, in the top 20, but crashed and pulled out on Sunday.

Luis Leon Sanchez 1st

We completely under-estimated the Spaniard.

Maxime Montfort 12th at 5-06

Will be disappointed with his position overall, but on balance it was about right.

SAN REMO FIELD DEPLETED

The favourites for Saturday?s Milan-San Remo are dropping like flies.

Twice winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) crashed and broke two ribs at the Tour of California last week. Columbia?s Kim Kirchen went down in the same crash on stage four, and broke his collarbone. Although not a big favourite for La Primavera, the rider Luxembourg would have been one of the likely agitators on the Cipressa and Poggio as he sought to build form for the Ardennes Classics.

Defending champion Fabian Cancellara should be on the start line in Milan, but he will be nowhere near the form he had a year ago. A crash in training earlier in the month saw to that. The Swiss rider was a lowly 118th in the time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, 4-15 down on winner Andreas Kloden.

Thor Hushovd did not start the Montelupone stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, still suffering the effects of a crash towards the end of stage two. The Norwegian has been training and should be fine for Saturday.

Alessandro Ballan pulled out of Tirreno-Adriatico after four stages, having failed to shake off a virus he?d had the previous weekend. Although the world champion hoped to be fit for Milan-San Remo, his real focus is the cobbled Classics early next month.

Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert, who was third in San Remo last year, dropped out of Paris-Nice. The Silence-Lotto rider was not ill, or injured, said team staff, but was struggling for form.


PARIS-NICE 2009

Stage reports

Stage eight: Luis Leon Sanchez clinches 2009 Paris-Nice

Stage seven: Contador loses Paris-Nice lead to Sanchez

Stage six: No surprises as Contador goes solo

Stage five: Roy takes solo win, Chavanel still leads

Stage four: Vande Velde takes trong lone win for Garmin

Stage three: Chavanel sweeps into power

Stage two: Haussler blasts to stage two win

Stage one (prologue): Contador wins, Wiggins second

Latest news/features

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Why Paris-Nice 2008 was simply a great race

Photo galleries

Stage eight photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage seven photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage six photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage five photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage four photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage three photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage two photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Stage one TT photo gallery, by Graham Watson

Paris-Nice 2008 photo gallery

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