It was so close. Italian Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) came within a whisker of losing the overall lead of Paris-Nice on Saturday after a stunning attack by stage four winner Alberto Contador (Discovery) on the final climb of the day – the Tanneron – all but succeeded in giving the young Spaniard the yellow jersey.
Contador did not take the lead, but with 15 riders at less than a minute on Rebellin, there?s every sign that the battle for victory in Paris-Nice will go right down to the wire.
Barely a kilometre from the stage six finish on Cannes seafront, Contador was reeled in by a peloton of around 30 riders, containing both the isolated Rebellin and British gc contender David Millar. Just as on stage five, won by Contador?s team-mate Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), only a loose, last-minute alliance had saved Rebellin?s yellow jersey from going to the American squad.
Victory on the 200 kilometre mammoth stage, containing no less than nine classified climbs went to Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse D?Epargne). Part of a six-man, day-long break, Sanchez had latched onto Contador?s back wheel when the Discovery Channel rider charged out of the main peloton half-way up the Tanneron, with another Caisse D?Epargne pro, David Lopez quickly on their tail.
The trio of Spaniards caught an over-ambitious Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) close to the summit, and then dropped the exhausted Frenchman on the final flat run-in. Their advantage of 30 seconds over the bunch and excellent collaboration beforehand made it look like the three would stay away together until the finish.
But it was not to be: instead, an attack by Luis Leon Sanchez three kilometres from the line gave the Spaniard the stage, whilst first Contador, then Lopez, were reeled in at the last possible moment by the peloton.
?I can finally dedicate a win to my brother.? Leon Sanchez – whose brother was killed in a motorbike accident 14 months ago – said after crossing the line. But it was a close thing. Classified the best young rider of last year?s Paris-Nice, and the winner of the Tour Down Under a couple of years back, he admitted that he ?had had no idea whether I was strong enough to fend off the peloton It was touch and go all the way, especially after I?d been in the break for all of the day. Somehow I managed to do it.?
?Alberto couldn?t do it.? Discovery Channel directeur sportif Dirk DeMol said afterwards. ?If he?d had 40 seconds, not 30, on Rebellin at the top of the Tanneron then maybe he?d have stayed away.?
?The climb really wasn?t long enough for him to get that kind of distance, though. Maybe tomorrow he?ll be able to do it – if he?s not too tired.? Contador also has been complaining of recurrent pains in his left knee.
Clearly the strongest rider on the Tanneron, Contador?s chance may yet come on the final climb of Paris-Nice on Sunday, the Col D?Eze. From the Col D?Eze it is straight downhill to the finish on the Promenade des Anglais, which would make it harder for a chase to form behind. Furthermore, Rebellin lost no less than four team-mates today, although Gerolsteiner were not the only team in trouble: on stage six a total of 21 riders either did not start or abandoned the race, amongst them King of the Mountains leader Heinrich Haussler and stage one winner Jean-Patrick Nazon.
Stage six: Brignoles – Cannes: Luis Leon Sanchez 200km in 4-46-32; 2, M. Lorenzotto (Milram) at 28sec; 3, J. Pineau (Bouygues Telecom); 4, F. Pellizotti (Liquigas); 5, S. Dumoulin (Ag2R); 9, D. Rebellin (Gerolsteiner); 20, D. Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) all st; 48, R. Hammond (T-Mobile) at 5-38.
Overall:- Davide Rebellin (Italy) Gerolsteiner 26-39-39; 2, A. Contador (Discovery Channel) at 6sec; 3, L. Leon Sanchez (Caisse D?Epargne) at 16sec; 4, T. Valjavec (Lampre) at 23sec; 5, F. Pellizotti (Liquigas) at 31sec; 8, D. Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) at 42sec; 48, R. Hammond (T-Mobile) at 10-56.