A tense stage saw the escapees hold off the closing peloton
Magnus Cort denied the peloton to take victory from a breakaway on stage four of Paris-Nice.
The early move was stacked with talent keen to make it to the line ahead of the bunch, but it was all in the balance as the race hit the final climb with 10km left to race.
Cort and his breakaway companions, including Thomas De Gendt, held the peloton to almost a minute as they hit the final kilometre, when the Dane attacked his three companions.
De Gendt tried to follow but couldn’t stick to the wheel as Cort took his first victory of the year.
Team Sky’s Michał Kwiatkowski finished in the main bunch and so takes the overall lead, with a 15 second advantage over Luis León Sánchez (Astana).
Stage four of Paris-Nice was due to be the first real GC test, after crosswinds caused havoc for the overall contenders in the opening three flat stages.
A 212km run from Vichy in the middle of France to Pélussin near Lyon awaited the peloton, with plenty of climbing tests along the route.
A total of four categorised climbs punctuated the route, including the category one Côte de Condrieu in the final 40km.
The last climb came in the last 12km – the 4.1km ascent of Côte de Chavanay, averaging 3.4 per cent.
Early racing was defined by an 13-man breakaway group, that included specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), time triallist Alessandro De Marchi (CCC Team) and Magnus Cort (Astana).
The peloton gave the escapees more than a six-minute advantage, but opted to start reeling them in during the final 100km.
Race leader and sprinting powerhouse Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) unsurprisingly lost contact as the stage reached its climax, with Team Sky’s Michał Kwiatkowski the leader in waiting if he finished at the head of affairs in Pélussin.
The pace of breakaway riders like De Gendt was too much for many, as the front group was whittled down to seven riders in the final 50km.
De Gendt, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), De Marchi, and Magnus Cort were the biggest names to hold onto the advantage, as the gap held at 2-28.
Simon Yates took up the chase for Mitchelton-Scott, with team-mate Matteo Trentin looking comfortable over the undulating course.
The race started to unfold as the peloton hit the final climb, with 2018 winner Marc Soler (Movistar) among those dropped.
EF Education First’s Lawson Craddock and Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates) attacked the peloton, dangling off the front before quickly being absorbed in the final 10km.
At the front, the breakaway was reduced to the four strongest – De Gendt, Cort, Ciccone and De Marchi – as they hit the crest of the côte with a 45 second advantage.
But the strength of the break was proven as they extended the gap out to almost a minute 8km from the line.
The peloton then started to close once again on the break, but Cort put in a huge dig in the final kilometre to break free from his companions.
De Gendt gave chase but came up short, with Cort crossing the line first to take victory.
Paris-Nice stage four: Vichy to Pélussin (212km)
1. Magnus Cort (Den) Astana, at 5-03-49
2. Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at 7 seconds
3. Giulio Ciccone (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 13 secs
4. Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) CCC Team, at 18 secs
5. Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie, at 48 secs
6. Valentin Madouas (Fra) Groupama-FDJ
7. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
8. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott
9. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Deceuninck – Quick-Step
10. Michalł Kwiatkowski (Pol) Team Sky, all at same time
General classification after stage four
1. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Team Sky 16-52-27
2. Luis León Sanchez (Esp) Astana Pro Team, at 5 seconds
3. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, at 10 secs
4. Egan Bernal (Col) Team Sky, at 11 secs
5. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott, at 14 secs
6. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 15 secs
7. Rudy Molard (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 17 secs
8. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at same time
9. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 18 secs
10. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at same time