French Paris-Nice contender Sylvain Chavanel stormed to both the stage win and the overall lead on Tuesday after a joint attack by Rabobank and Quick Step left Astana?s Alberto Contador isolated and unable to control the race.
Forty kilometres from the line, stage three looked like anything but a day to remember. None of the five breakaways ahead were significant for the overall, and everything seemed nicely under control for a bunch sprint.
Then suddenly, as the rain teemed down and strong cross-winds bent back the trees lining the road-sides, it all changed. A mass of orange and white Rabobank jerseys at the front of the bunch and a lethal increase in speed saw the bunch split into half a dozen pieces.
Crucially, overnight leader Contador was in the third group, whilst Chavanel together with team-mate Kevin Seeldrayers and the Rabobank team was in the front.
Confusion reigned behind whilst Rabobank simply raised the pace higher and higher ahead, to the point where the front group was whittled down to a mere half-dozen with around 25 kilometres to go.
But the half-dozen held some notable Classics strongmen, with French contender Sylvain Chavanel and Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step) providing key support for Rabobank?s three remaining riders, Sebastian Langeveld, Juanman Garate and Juan Antonio Flecha. Former Ghent-Wevelgem winner Marcus Burghardt (Columbia-Highroad) looked equally at home in the atrocious weather conditions.
The group swept up three earlier breakaways, Christophe Le Mevel (Francaise des Jeux), Stephane Auge (Cofidis) and Tom Veelers (Skil-Shimano) to form a group of nine and the chase was on.
As the gap rose to around 40 seconds, Contador was able to bridge across to the second group. But there were no Astana riders there to help him.
Katusha and SaxoBank appeared willing to lend a hand to try and keep the differences down and force a bunch sprint, but with so many strong Classics riders ahead the task proved impossible.
The gap inched upwards to around a minute with 10 kilometres to go. Even if Veelers and Le Mevel were unable to handle the pace, and then Burghardt punctured, the Rabobank trio and Quick Step duo continued to drive like madmen.
Come the finish, Flecha and Langeveld tried to outwit Chavanel, but the Frenchman was having none of it. Charging past Flecha after the Spaniard tried it with an over-long sprint, Chavanel powered across the line for both the lead, the stage win and what may prove, long-term, to be a very handy time bonus.
Bedraggled and barely motivated to fight for the honour of ninth place behind the breakaways, Contador?s group finally crossed the line one minute and eight seconds back. Overall, Chavanel leads Contador by one minute and three seconds as the former leader now drops to sixth overall.
Briton David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream) falls to ninth overall, one minute and 17 seconds adrift of Chavanel, whilst Bradley Wiggins slipped from second to 117th overall.
Can Contador rise again?
Normally in Paris-Nice, Chavanel’s current time advantage overall would be sufficient for him to be all but certain of victory. But this is no ordinary Paris-Nice, with three days in the mountains – and above all a summit finish on Friday – providing great opportunities for Contador to pull back time and regain the lead.
What was more surprising, perhaps, was how Astana fell apart so conclusively when Rabobank charged ahead.
Contador was almost completely isolated. Considering Astana are supposed to be the strongest stage racing team in the world, no-one could have expected them to seem so vulnerable.
There?s no doubting their leaders collective strength. The names Armstrong, Contador, Klöden and Leipheimer inspire immediate respect.
But long-term, this kind of mass collapse raises serious – and interesting – questions about just how powerful the Kazakh squad is in terms of its domestiques. In the meantime, Astana?s stage three collapse and stinging defeat has left the 2009 Paris-Nice, a race which seemed made for Contador, wide open.
Paris-Nice stage three: Results
1. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step in 4-33-12
2. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank
3. Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Rabobank
4. Stephane Auge (Fra) Cofidis
5. Kevin Seeldrayers (Bel) Quick Step
6. Juan Manuel Garate (Spa) Rabobank
7. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Silence-Lotto all at same time
8. Marcus Burghardt (Ger) Columbia-Highroad at 40secs
9. Heinrich Haussler (Ger) Cervelo at 1-09
10. Sebastien Turgot (Fra) BBox-Bouygues Telecom at same time.
40. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 1-09
90. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Cervelo at 2-50
140. Daniel Fleeman (GB) Cervelo at 11-34
142. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at same time.
Overall classification after stage three
1. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step in 9-29-24
2. Juan Manuel Garate (Spa) Rabobank at 33secs
3. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank at 36secs
4. Kevin Seeldrayers (Bel) Quick Step at 37secs
5. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Silence-Lotto at 40secs
6. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 1-03
7. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 1-12
8. Stephane Auge (Fra) Cofidis at 1-14
9. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 1-17
10. Antonio Colom (Spa) Katusha at 1-22
64. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Cervelo at 3-31
117. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 11-35
139. Daniel Fleeman (GB) Cervelo at 12-46
Bradley Wiggins and David Millar before the stage
Sylvain Chavanel takes the stage win and the race lead
Stage two: Haussler blasts to stage two win
Stage one (prologue): Contador wins, Wiggins second