A devastating attack in the final kilometre of Paris-Nice 2007?s only summit finish, at Mende, earned promising young Spaniard Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) the first ever Paris-Nice stage of his career.
The overall, however, remained out of Contador?s reach as Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), who finished just two seconds behind Contador on the stage, took over as leader from fellow-Italian Franco Pellizotti.
Contador?s move was the culmination of some strong team-work by Discovery Channel – for whom he signed at the start of this season. The American formation had set a ferocious pace on the second category Cote de Chabrits, the hill immediately prior to a breakneck descent into Mende and a final short, but painfully steep, climb.
With the last two survivors of the early break, Sandy Casar (Fdjeux.com) and Amael Moinard, reeled in three kilometres from the finish thanks to Discovery, Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) used his climbing skills to move ahead. But Rebellin immediately countered, and then Contador overtook both the Australian and the Italian.
Riding strongly through the dense pinewoods leading to Mende airfield and the finish, for a moment it looked as if Contador would get both the stage and the overall. Overnight leader Franco Pellizotti had cracked two kilometres from the summit and behind the Spaniard, the field had shattered completely.
However, it turned out that Rebellin, if not as explosive a climber as Contador – ten years younger than him, when all is said and done – knew perfectly how to keep the Spaniard under control. Riding steadily, the Italian crossed the line a mere two seconds behind Contador, enough to propel Rebellin into yellow.
Contador was nonetheless more than pleased with his ride, which earned him his second win of the season after taking the toughest stage of the Tour of Valencia in February.
?I was able to finish off some exceptionally strong work by my team in the right way.? Contador argued. ?They set things up for me perfectly.?
?I didn?t celebrate my win very much, because I had no idea whether there was somebody from a break ahead.? he added, revealing that his main interest had been the gc, not the stage.
Britain?s David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) turned in a more than respectable ride, finishing less than a minute behind Contador. Overall, he is now seventh, 42 seconds back.
To say that Rebellin, now leading Contador by six seconds, is now the real favourite for final victory in Nice would be a major under-statement. Best known for his triple run of wins in Amstel, Fleche and Amstel in 2005, Rebellin already has a second and third place overall in Paris-Nice in his palmares.
Six seconds may not sound like much, but in the last three Paris-Nice there have been 15 seconds or less between the overall winner and the runner-up and Rebellin has already shown on Thursday that he is one of the strongest climbers in the race.
Friday?s stage is unlikely to provide many changes overall: 178 kilometres long and running from Sourgues to Manosque through heavy terrain, the lack of classified climbs in the last 30 kilometres make it improbable any breaks will stay away.
Photo: Luc Claessen
PARIS-NICE: STAGE FOUR RESULTS
1 Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) 169.5km in 04.07.26
2 Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) at 2secs
3 David Garcia (Caisse d’Epargne) at 12secs
4 Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) at 13 secs
5 Tadej Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital) at 17secs
6 Frank Schleck (CSC) at 28secs
7 Sebastien Joly (FDJ) at 33secs
8 Levi Leiphemier (Discovery Channel) at 33secs
9 Thomas Lovkvist (FDJ) at same time
10 Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) at 40secs
14 David Millar (Saunier Duval) at 45secs
PARIS-NICE: OVERALL AFTER STAGE FOUR
1 Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) in 17.40.34
2 Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) at 6secs
3 Tadej Valjavec (Lampre Fondital) at 23secs
4 Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) at 31secs
5 Sebastien Joly (FDJ) at 32secs
6 Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) at 35secs
7 David Millar (Saunier Duval) at 42secs
8 Frank Schleck (CSC) at 42secs
9 David Garcia (Caisse d’Epargne) at 43secs
10 Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) at 46secs