Following yesterday?s stinging defeat, overwhelming Paris-Nice favourite Alberto Contador counter-attacked in style on Wednesday. A dramatic late move saw the Spaniard claw back time overall on French leader Sylvain Chavanel. The stage win went to Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde.
Yesterday the Spaniard and his Astana squad had been badly caught out by Chavanel, with the Frenchman taking part in a mass attack with Rabobank and wrenching the lead from Contador.
But this time round it was Contador who set the race on fire, with a dramatic surprise move on the seemingly straightforward third category climb of Rochetaillée, close to the finish in the grimy industrial city of Saint Etienne.
After two days of tough riding in the hills of central France, Chavanel was too tired to respond, sliding backwards through group after group as Contador forged up the treelined ascent.
The Frenchman was lucky, perhaps, that the climb was only six kilometres long and not particularly steep. By the summit Contador was 20 seconds behind Vandevelde, the lone survivor of an earlier move, and around 20 seconds up on Chavanel.
On a treacherous, rainsoaked descent into Saint Etienne, Contador was caught by a much larger group of riders. But Chavanel, despite making an ultra-fast descent, was unable to regain contact with his chief rival for the overall.
Contador?s group were equally unable to catch Vande Velde, who secured the sixth win of his career with a huge grin on his face and his trademark gesture of rocking a baby?s cradle as he crossed the line.
Just 14 seconds after Vande Velde, the 21-strong group containing Contador flashed across the line, whilst Chavanel finished 41 seconds down on the stage winner.
The net result of Contador?s daring attack was he has closed the gap between the Spaniard and Chavanel to just 36 seconds and moved up to fourth place on gc. At the same time, Briton David Millar (Garmin), present in Contador?s group, has moved up from ninth to seventh overall.
If the Quick Step rider?s task of maintaining the overall lead was already looking difficult on Friday?s uphill finish of the Montagne de Lure, now it looks even harder.
For Vande Velde, his stage win could not have been more timely. Fifth in the 2008 Tour and the leader of the Giro after Garmin won the team time trial, Vande Velde?s Paris-Nice had got off to an awful start after he crashed in the prologue, losing over a minute.
Briton Bradley Wiggins was amongst the non-starters on Wednesday. Second in the prologue, Wiggins pulled out for family reasons.
Thursday?s stage from Annonay to Vallon-Pont d?Arc is Paris-Nice?s first important contact with the mountains of southern France and could well see more riders high up on gc in trouble.
Although all of the seven classified climbs, including a first category ascent of the Col de Benas are in the the first half of the day?s racing, there is barely a metre of flat in the whole of the 204 kilometre stage. So if Wednesday?s stage is anything to go by Chavanel could well find himself in trouble for a second day running.
Paris-Nice stage four: Results
1. Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin 173.5km in 4hr 01min 31sec
2. Jonathan Hivert (Hol) Skil-Shimano at 14sec
3. Mirco Lorenzetto (Ita) Lampre
4. Christophe Moreau (Fra) Agritubel
5. Jens Voigt (Ger) SaxoBank
6. Amael Moinard (Fra) Cofidis
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) SaxoBank
8. Maxime Monfort (Bel) Columbia-Highroad
9. Frank Schleck (Lux) SaxoBank
10. Juan Manuel Garate (Spa) Rabobank all same time
13. David Millar (GB) Garmin at 14sec
53. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Cervélo at 1min 18sec
149. Daniel Fleeman (GB) Cervélo at 11min 09sec
DNS Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin
Overall classification after stage four
1. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step in 13hr 31min 36sec
2. Juan Manuel Garate (Spa) Rabobank at 6sec
3. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank at 36sec
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana same time
5. Kevin Seeldrayers (Bel) Quick Step at 37sec
6. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 45sec
7. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 50sec
8. Antonio Colom (Spa) Katusha at 55sec
9. Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Katusha at 57sec
10. Jens Voigt (Ger) SaxoBank at 1min 03sec
48. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Cervélo at 4min 08sec
145. Daniel Fleeman (GB) Cervélo at 23min 14sec
Race leader Sylvain Chavanel
Christian Vande Velde in the escape group before going solo for the win
Martin pulls out of Paris-Nice
Prologue analysis: Contador the unstoppable?
The Big Preview: Paris-Nice 2009
Fleeman to ride Paris-Nice
Why Paris-Nice 2008 was simply a great race
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