Wout Poels (Team Sky) moved to within 15 seconds of the overall race lead at Paris-Nice with a superb time trial win on stage four of the Race to the Sun.
Not noted for his time trialling, Poels made use of the uphill first half of the 18.4km course to set the fastest time of the day at the intermediate time check, and only extended his advantage on the run to the line to win the stage by 11 seconds over Marc Soler (Movistar) and 16 seconds over Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors).
The yellow jersey on Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) put in a solid ride to finish in seventh place, conceding nearly half a minute to Poels but seeing his lead cut to 15 seconds with Poels now in second place rather than Arnaud Démare (Groupama FDJ), who finished in a distant 47th place.
How it happened
Stage four of Paris-Nice saw the riders face a rolling 18.5km time trial, which climbed steadily upwards to the intermediate time check at the eight kilometre mark in Saint-Héand before a generally flat and downhill finish to Saint-Étienne.
In overcast conditions with the occasional shower, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) set the early mark, but was quickly bettered by Team Sky's Dylan Van Baarle, who swept through the course in a time of 26-21.
Van Baarle's time at the intermediate time check was bettered by a number of strong time triallists including Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), but Van Baarle had clearly held something back for the second half of the course as rider after rider was unable to beat his time at the finish.
Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) was the first to worry Van Baarle, finishing 16 seconds behind, while Fuglasang was the first to come within a few seconds of the best time, stopping the clock just eight seconds in arrears.
In fact the first rider to beat Van Baarle would come from within his own team, as David de la Cruz went nearly 20 seconds faster at the intermediate time check and dropped only a few seconds on the second half of the course to set the best time with 26-07.
However the stronger riders at the top of the general classification were the ones who were truly going to battle for the stage win, and as Wout Poels (Team Sky) went fastest at the intermediate, it was Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) who blasted through the second half of the course to beat De la Cruz's time by just a single second.
But Yates' time didn't last for long as Sergio Henao (Team Sky) crossed the line just six hundredths of a second faster, before Poels continued his storming ride to set another new best time of 25-33, more than 30 seconds faster than his team-mate.
Poels may not be renowned for his time trialling ability, but neither is Marc Soler (Movistar) who moved into second place just 11 seconds behind the Dutchman.
However the yellow jersey of Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) was losing a bit of time, conceding 15 seconds to Poels at the intermediate time check, and slipping further back in the second half of the course to eventually finish seventh on the stage.
The good news for Sanchez was that that result was not only enough to see him keep the yellow jersey, with his lead cut to 15 second over Poels as Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) plunged down the overall standings.
Paris-Nice continues on Thursday with a 165km stage from Salon-de-Provence to Sisteron, a hilly stage with four climbs including the first first-category ascent of the race.
Paris-Nice 2018, stage four: La Fouillouse to Saint-Étienne, 18.5km (ITT)
1. Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky, in 5-33
2. Marc Soler (Esp) Movistar, at 11 secs
3. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 16 secs
4. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 20 secs
5. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 27 secs
6. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 27 secs
7. Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana, at 28 secs
8. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 29 secs
9. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky, at 33 secs
10. Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott, at 33 secs
General classification after stage four
1. Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana, in 13-47-67
2. Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky, at 15 secs
3. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 26 secs
4. Marc Soler (Esp) Movistar, at same time
5. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 34 secs
6. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 35 secs
7. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 42 secs
8. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at same time
9. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky, at 48 secs
10. Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott, at same time
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