Davide Ballerini took victory on stage one of the Tour de la Provence 2021, pipping French champion Arnaud Démare on the line in a chaotic finale.
Ballerini's team, Deceuninck - Quick-Step, left it to the last moments to start up their lead out for the Italian as world champion and team-mate, Julian Alaphilippe, was up the road until the last 2km.
It was thought that Alaphilippe had taken 11 bonus seconds while out in the break, thus putting him into the leaders jersey ahead of Ballerini, but the UCI stepped in saying that it was not allowed and Ballerini would lead the overall in stage two.
Alaphilippe took an intermediate sprint which had three second bonus as-well-as a special bonus sprint at the top of the final climb that left him officially with an overall of 11 bonus seconds. But, according to reports, the UCI stepped, placing Ballerini in the GC lead and Alaphilippe in fifth. The reasons for this are not yet clear.
How it happened
The stage started in the town of Aubagne and wound around the Provence countryside to Six-Fours-les-Plages over a 179.3km route that took in a few short climbs along the way.
The riders started the day on an 11km climb straight from the gun, but the race wasn't broken up due to a stiff Mistral headwind on the way out. This meant only two riders went away in the early break.
Lilian Calmejane (Ag2r Citroën Team) and Delio Fernandez (Team Delko) were the duo that decided to challenge themselves. They managed a maximum gap of five minutes before Groupama-FDJ, Movistar Team, and Deceuninck - Quick-Step pulled the gap down.
An intermediate sprint with 90km to go saw the front two take the first points along with three and two bonus seconds, but behind, it was Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) who took the final bonus second.
The gap continued to drop to under two minutes with 77km to go as Arkéa-Samsic and B&B Hotels-Vital Concept came up before the first major climb of the day.
Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) then decided to kick off the attacks with 72k to go but he was not allowed any space at all.
The French time trial champion did catch the breakaway before all three riders were brought back. A series of attacks then peppered the climb, seeing Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) slipping out the back with 70km to go.
Over the top the peloton was all together until Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) went on the attack. The Italian climber was chased down by fellow countryman, Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) and then the world champion, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) jumped across.
The leaders had 50 seconds at the base of the descent and pulled the gap out to 1-20 with 50km to go but the sprinters teams had sorted themselves out behind with Arkéa-Samsic, UAE Team Emirates, Bahrain Victorious, and Lotto-Soudal all drilling the pace.
Démare was the last big name sprinter to get back in, but his team did not assist the chase and decided to just protect the French national road race champion. But the chase was going well as the gap dropped to a minute with 33km to go.
At the bottom of the descent the gap had moved to 40 seconds with 20km to go as the sprinters's teams really started ramping up the pace, but one last kick saw the gap kick back up to 52 seconds again with 18km to go.
The break managed to keep the gap to about 25 seconds with 10km to go as they came into some awkward road furniture but the peloton, which were now hammering the pace along, made it through without problems.
Alaphilippe attacked with 2.5km to go, dropping Ciccone with Moscon only just holding on with the peloton at eight seconds back. The Deceuninck - Quick-Step team started blocking the peloton as the road tightened but the bunch still managed to pull back the two leaders with 2km to go.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step then stepped up and started up the lead out for Ballerini but it was Démare who moved first and kicked hard, getting a gap immediately.
But it was Ballerini who managed to get into the slipstream, passing the Frenchman in the last couple of metres with the Italian taking the overall lead.
Tour de la Provence 2021, stage one: Aubagne to Six-Fours-les-Plages (179.3km)
1. Davide Ballerini (ITA) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, in 4-43-23
2. Arnaude Démare (FRA) Groupama-FDJ
3. Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) Arkéa-Samsic
4. Clément Venturini (FRA) Ag2r La Mondiale-Citroën
5. Matt Walls (GBR) Bora-Hansgrohe
6. Ide Schelling (NED) Bora-Hansgrohe
7. Bryan Coquard (FRA) B&B Hotels-Vital Concept p/b KTM
8. Phil Bauhaus (GER) Bahrain Victorious
9. Matteo Moschetti (ITA) Trek-Segafredo
10. Alexander Kristoff (NOR) UAE Team Emirates, all at the same time
General classification after stage one
1. Davide Ballerini (ITA) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, in 4-43-13
2. Arnaud Démare (FRA) Groupama-FDJ, 4 seconds
3. Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) Arkéa-Samsic, 6s
4. Lilian Calmejane (FRA) Ag2r La Mondiale-Citroën, same time
5. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, 7s
6. Bauke Mollema (NED) Trek-Segafredo, 9s
7. Gianni Moscon (ITA) Ineos Grenadiers, same time
8. Clément Venturini (FRA) Ag2r La Mondiale-Citroën, 10s
9. Matt Walls (GBR) Bora-Hansgrohe
10. Ide Schelling (NED) Bora-Hansgrohe, all at same time
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