Peter Sagan has been the revelation of Paris-Nice, there is no doubt about that.
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The 20-year-old Slovakian was fifth in the prologue on Sunday, finished second on the stage to Limoges when French sprinter William Bonnet overtook him at the death. He won in Aurillac on Wednesday although he was distanced a little on the steep climb to the finish in Mende yesterday and slipped down the overall classification.
And that could have been that. No one would have complained if the youngster, in his first year as a professional with the Liquigas team, sat back and tried to defend his eighth place overall.
But at the end of another absorbing day’s racing, Sagan won the fifth stage to Aix-en-Provence with a do-or-die attack on the final climb near the finish.
He held off a powerful chasing group and had the strength to get out of the saddle and sprint the final few hundred metres up hill to the line. It was an incredible display of nerve and strength from a rider who made his debut at this level of competition at the Tour Down Under in January.
Sagan’s win completed the perfect day for the Liquigas team. A little earlier, their sprinter, Daniele Bennati, won the stage at Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy.
Over recent years Paris-Nice has developed a reputation for being a race for the pugnacious types and this edition has not disappointed. Every day has seen aggressive racing and bold attacks.
The stage took a while to settle into a pattern and it wasn’t until the final 60 kilometres that a break of any real note formed. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Volodymyr Gustov (Cervélo) and Frenchman Sylvain Calzati (Team Sky) attacked.
Rein Taaramae, the Estonian champion who rides for Cofidis, went across to the break and they quickly opened a gap of around a minute.
However, with Taaramae lying 10th overall, there was absolutely no way the bunch were going to let them stay away. Perhaps acknowledging this, and not wishing to jeopardise the chances of the other three, the Estonian sat up with around 26km to go. He drifted back to the bunch allowing the other three a clearer stab at it.
They didn’t last much longer. Calzati got a rear-wheel puncture which meant he couldn’t contribute to the work until Team Sky’s car got up to service him, and with around 12km to go they were swallowed up.
It was AG2R who took up the initiative in the bunch, maybe hoping to set Nicolas Roche up for the finish knowing that the final hill offered him the perfect springboard to launch an attack.
Behind them, the bunch split because of the pace and because of a tricky section through a town, with street furniture and roundabouts amplifying the pressure being put on at the front.
Levi Leipheimer of Radioshack, who looked so good recently at the Tour of the Algarve, was one of those dropped. Clearly the American, who could have been a challenger here, has endured a torrid week.
AG2R continued to set a fierce pace but misjudged it slightly and they began to run out of gas with a little over three kilometres to go.
Inside the final two kilometres, Sagan attacked past Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) on the last little climb and opened a big gap very quickly. The reaction was a little slow to come. Caisse d’Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi tried to close the gap and for a moment it looked as if Sagan was going to run out of gas.
But he dug deep to find enough to power himself forward to his second stage win, strengthening his hold on the green jersey, as leader of the points competition.
Alberto Contador retained the yellow jersey and the overall picture was relatively unchanged at the top, with Sagan staying eighth, although he closed the gap a little. Valverde’s third place trimmed Contador’s overall lead from 24 to 20 seconds.
Saturday’s penultimate stage is the toughest of the race. It’s a 220-kilometre leg from Peynier to Tourrettes-sur-Loup with eight categorised climbs on the way. The first-category Col de Vence is the big one, coming around 40 kilometres from the finish.
A long stage, after a week of hard racing in cold conditions, means danger lurks on every uphill. If it’s an aggressive race from the start, the overall classification could be in for a shake-up.
Stage five: Pernes-les-Fontaines – Aix-en-Provence
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas in 3hr 34min 15sec
2. Mirco Lorenzetto (Ita) Lampre at 2sec
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
4. Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) Française des Jeux
5. Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank
6. Simon Gerrans (Aus) Team Sky
7. Koldo Fernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
8. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2r
9. Matthew Goss (Aus) HTC-Columbia
10. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana all same time
20. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at 2sec
112. Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky at 16-50
115. Daniel Lloyd (GB) Cervelo
147. Steve Cummings (GB) Team Sky at same time
Overall classification after stage five
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 20hr 41min 39sec
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 20sec
3. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 25sec
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 26sec
5. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 29sec
6. Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 34sec
7. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 36sec
8. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas at 42sec
9. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at 1-02
10. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at 1-06
David Millar: ninth overall
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas (right) and Steve Cummings
Sylvain Calzati makes a break for it with Carlos Barredo and Volodymyr Gustov
Nicolas Roche takes the helm for Ag2r
Peter Sagan takes his second stage win
Alberto Contador is still safely in the yellow jersey
Paris-Nice 2010: Stage reports
Paris-Nice 2010: Photo galleries