Jonathan Hivert (Direct Energie) was the surprise victor on stage three of Paris-Nice, out-sprinting Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) and Rémy Di Grégorio (Delko Marseille Provence KTM) at the end of a late attack, with Sanchez also moving into the yellow jersey.
The action started on the third-category climb of the Côte de Charbonnières with just over 20km remaining, but it was an attack by Di Grégorio on the descent which would define the race.
The Frenchman’s move was followed by Sanchez and Hivert, forming a trio who worked well together as Sanchez, 15 seconds down on the race lead at the start of the day, tried to move into yellow.
With it clear that the breakaway would take victory, Di Grégorio launched two more attacks in the final two kilometres, both of which were closed down by Sanchez while Hivert sat in his wheel and biding his time for the sprint.
With 200m to go, Hivert eased out of the wheel of Sanchez to sprint across the line for the biggest win of his career, while Démare’s sprint for fourth place at the head of the bunch was not enough to prevent Sanchez moving into the race lead ahead of Wednesday’s time trial.
How it happened
Stage three of Paris-Nice was the longest of the race at 210km, and featured a testing hilly parcours between Bourges and Châtel-Guyon, with Jay Robert Thomson (Dimension Data), Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie) and Przemyslaw Kasperkiewicz (Delko Marseille Provence) making it into the break.
The bunch seemed happy with the composition of the breakaway, which enjoyed a maximum lead of more than seven minutes before Groupama-FDJ hit the front to start to reduce the gap on behalf of the yellow jersey of Arnaud Démare.
The break worked well together, for most of the day but with nearly 70km remaining Grellier decided that he would be better-off alone, attack his breakaway companions on the third-category Côte des Boulards before forging on alone.
Grellier’s effort was a decent one, but his lead over the peloton was always diminishing, leading to the catch being made on the approach to the Côte de Charbonnières as the pace went up on the front of the bunch.
The slopes of the climb saw Astana set a fierce tempo to drop stage two winner Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), but Arnaud Démare looked comfortable as he sat towards the front of the bunch. However things were not quite so comfortable for Team Sky co-leader Wout Poels, who punctured midway up the climb before starting a frantic chase.
The first attack came from Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) who moved clear with Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), forcing BMC Racing and Mitchelton-Scott to take up the chase behind as Démare was dropped.
However the pace was not high enough to deter further attacks as Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), and Jonathan Hivert (Direct Energie) made their way across to the front to form a five-man group, but that seemed to disrupt the rhythm, meaning that it all came back together with 20km remaining.
The descent off the climb saw more action as Hivert, Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), and Rémy Di Grégorio (Delko Marseille Provence KTM) were able to open a gap over the chase group where Alaphilippe was working hard on the front, frantically flicking his elbow at the disinterested Astana riders behind.
This lack of cooperation meant the group containing Démare was able to regain contact with the second group with eight kilometres to go, raising the prospect of a bunch sprint event as the leaders’ opened their lead out to 50 seconds.
Lotto-Soudal, Ag2r La Mondiale, Bora-Hansgrohe, and Groupama-FDJ all helped with the chase, but could make few in-roads before the leaders hit the short climb towards the flamme rouge with two kilometres to go.
The upping of the gradient prompted an attack by Di Grégorio that was pulled back by Sanchez, before Di Grégorio went again under the flamme rouge and Sanchez once again closed the gap with Hivert in his wheel.
Having not had to put his nose in the wind for the last two kilometres, Hivert was always going to be the favourite in the sprint, and duly came out of the wheel of Sanchez to take the biggest win of his career.
Meanwhile it was Démare who led the bunch home 38 seconds later, but that was not enough for him to hold on to the overall lead, with Sanchez moving into yellow.
Paris-Nice continues on Wednesday with a 18.4km individual time trial between La Fouillouse and Saint-Étienne.
Paris-Nice 2018, stage three: Bourges to Châtel-Guyon
1. Jonathan Hivert (Fra) Direct Energie, in 5-22-49
2. Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana, at same time
3. Remy Di Gregorio (Fra) Delko Marseille Provence KTM, at same time
4. Arnaud Demare (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 38 secs
5. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Team Sunweb
6. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal
7. Magnus Cort (Den) Astana
8. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott
9. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors
10. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, all at same time
General classification after stage three
1. Luis León Sanchez (Esp) Astana, in 13-21-55
2. Arnaud Demare (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 29 secs
3. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 36 secs
4. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 39 secs
5. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 42 secs
6. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at same time
7. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Mitchelton-Scott, at same time
8. Heinrich Haussler (Aus) Bahrain-Merida, at 44 secs
9. Felix Grossschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at same time
10. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at same time