By Nigel Wynn
Frenchman Remy Di Gregorio (Astana)
has won a rain-lashed, crash-strewn stage seven of Paris-Nice this afternoon after a daring solo effort on the slick roads of Biot-Sophia Antipolis.
Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) lead home the chasers in second, with Rigoberto Uran (Sky) in third.
Race leader Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) kept out of trouble and in touch with the leaders to come home in fifth, maintaining his overall grip on the race after Saturday's time trial win.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins (Sky) rode strongly to finish in seventh spot on the stage and keep hold of his third spot overall, 41 seconds down on Martin and five seconds behind second-placed Andreas Kloden (Radioshack).
The weather played havoc with the bunch, claiming several victims on the greasy road surface. One rider who came off badly was points classification leader Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo), who looked to have injured his arm after crashing into a wall on a corner. He remounted his bike but looked in pain.
Several riders called it a day, including Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek), Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Cervelo) and 2010 double stage winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas) along with non-starters Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Daniele Righi (Lampre).
If the weather wasn't enough to cope with, the riders also had to traverse five categorised climbs within its 215km, including the back-to-back category one climbs of Cote de Cabris and Col du Ferrier at the mid-way point.
After a couple of early escape attempts it was Karsten Kroon (BMC Racing) and Eric Berthou (Bretagne-Schuller) that made a move that stuck after 86 kilometres. The pair worked hard together and quickly opened up a gap on the bunch - touching on seven minutes by the top of Cote de Cabris.
By the final climb of Cote de Gourdon, the gap had been whittled down to three minutes. As the escapees reached the finish circuit in Biot, Kroon accelerated away from Berthou.
The bunch, lead by a highly active Movistar squad, first caught Berthou and then crept up on Kroon, his solo effort over.
In the final 20km there were attacks aplenty on the rolling roads - Remy Di Gregorio (Astana) managed to get away and build up a significant gap. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) tried to bridge to the Frenchman, but again Movistar kept the pace of the depleted bunch high and caught Gerdemann.
Di Gregorio slipped and slid his way to the finish, miraculously keeping upright when approaching a roundabout despite his rear wheel whale-tailing across the road. His team-mate Robert Kiserlovski fared less well, coming off his bike and ending up caught under a parked lorry.
In the final few kilometres, Movistar's motives were revealed as Xavier Tondo attempted to launch an attack. Di Gregorio was safely away, though, and crossed the line alone as Tondo was closely marked behind, the Spaniard eventually arriving at the finish on his backside in an unfortunately-timed crash.
Paris-Nice 2011 concludes tomorrow (Sunday) with a 124km stage around Nice that features five categorised climbs - the race is far from settled yet.
Paris-Nice 2011, stage seven: Brignoles to Biot-Sophia Antipolis, 215km
1. Remy Di Gregorio (Fra) Astana in 5-46-23
2. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 5 secs
3. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky at same time
4. Andreas Kloden (Ger) Radioshack at 7 secs
5. Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad
6. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at same time
7. Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Radioshack at 9 secs
8. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Sky
9. Xavier Tondo (Spa) Movistar at same time
10. Maxim Monfort (Bel) Leopard-Trek at 11 secs
Overall classification after stage seven
1. Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad
2. Andreas Kloden (Ger) Radioshack at 36 secs
3. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Sky at 41 secs
4. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at 1-10
5. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Ag2r at 1-21
More 'race to the snow' than 'race to the sun'
Tony Martin rode well to stay in the lead
Laurens Ten Dam heads an early escape group
Bradley Wiggins: Another strong ride
Happy to have finished in one piece: Remy di Gregorio
Paris-Nice 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
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