Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) was the slightly unexpected victor at the end of an aggressive final hour of racing on stage six of Paris-Nice.
The 28-year-old Frenchman took just the second victory of his professional career as he bided his time before launching two attacks in the final two kilometres, the second of which with 1,300m to go getting him enough of a gap to be able to sit up and straighten his jersey as he crossed the line.
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Earlier, a first-category climb with 10km remaining decimated the peloton, with race leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) briefly being in difficulty before regaining contact, and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) attacking over the top.
The fast descent that followed brought disaster for Wout Poels (Team Sky) who crashed into a roadside barrier and was forced to abandon the race, while Yates was eventually caught with four kilometres remaining.
From there a few more attacks flew off the front, before Molard launched his decisive move shortly before the flamme rouge.
The yellow jersey of Sanchez finished in a group just two seconds later, meaning the Spaniard will hold on to the race lead going into Saturday’s potentially decisive summit finish at Valdeblore La Colmiane.
How it happened
Stage six of Paris-Nice saw the peloton tackle the hilliest stage of the race so far, covering 198km from Sisteron to Vence and traversing four climbs including a first category ascent just nine kilometres from the line.
The early part of the race saw a group of 13 riders get away: Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Carlos Barbero (Movistar), Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Bert Van Lerberghe and Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis), Lars Bak (Lotto Soudal), Amaël Moinard (Fortuneo-Samsic), Paul Martens (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tom Scully (EF Education First-Drapac), and Fabian Grellier (Direct Energie).
Their task in the early part of the stage was aided somewhat as the peloton managed to take a wrong turn in the first few kilometres, before the bunch got itself in order and set about keeping the gap at no more than three minutes.
However the day’s numerous ascents slowly whittled down the front group with only De Gendt, Grellier, Moinard and Scully still out front by the top of the Côte de Gourdon with 40km remaining.
A long descent followed that climb, and saw the start of the action in the peloton behind, which was now less than a minute behind the break.
Wout Poels (Team Sky) put in a small dig over the top to make sure he was in a good position for the winding descent, before Team Sky and Mitchelton-Scott combined on the front to raise the pace, just as race leader Luis Leon Sanchez suffered an ill-timed mechanical.
Thankfully for the Astana rider the bike change from a team-mate was swift, and after a few kilometres of frantic chasing he was back in the main group with the breakaway caught and less than 20km to go.
However even with Sanchez back in the pack, Mitchelton-Scott continued to drive the pace on the run-in to the first category climb of the Côte de la Colle sur Loup.
The Australian team continued to lead onto the climb before Dries Devenyns, working for Quick-Step Floors team-mate Julian Alaphilippe took over while the steep gradients caused devastation behind with riders fighting their bikes and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) suffering a mechanical problem and having to rely on a spectator for a push to get him back up to speed.
At the front of the race few of the GC contenders seemed willing to attack, with two accelerations each from Wout Poels and Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r La Mondiale) causing a quick reaction that meant neither of them were able to get away.
Those accelerations did mean that the yellow jersey of Sanchez was briefly dropped dropped, before Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) made another move to try and get away on the descent.
Yates flew down the descent prompting a flurry of activity behind which saw Wout Poels crash heavily, hitting a roadside barrier but appearing not to be seriously injured as he was helped up by a police motorcyclist.
Meanwhile Yates was still pushing on in front, using an unclassified ramp to eek out a few more seconds of an advantage with six kilometres remaining while Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) tried to work for Sanchez behind.
The British rider only had a slender gap, but he soon enjoyed a bit of help as Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) bridged across and went straight to the front to bring the gap up to just over 10 seconds with four kilometres to go.
The gap was small enough to encourage attacks, and as soon as Fuglsang swung off the move came from Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) who pulled a small group along with him, including Sanchez, to create a group of 16 riders at the front.
Also in that group was Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ), and as they approached the flamme rouge the Frenchman put in a huge gap which no one seemed willing to chase.
Wrestling his bike from side to side, Molard’s technique might not have been textbook but it was certainly effective as he was able to hold his advantage up the finishing straight, and have time to point to the Groupama-FDJ jersey as he crossed the line.
Paris-Nice 2018, stage six: Sisteron to Vence (198km)
1. Rudy Molard (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 4-40-05 4:40:05
2. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 2 secs
3. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana
5. Sam Oomen (Ned) Team Sunweb
6. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC Racing
7. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe
8. Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott
9. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida
10. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky, all at same time
General classification after stage six
1. Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana, in 22-25-33
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 22 secs
3. Marc Soler (Esp) Movistar Team, at 26 secs
4. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 34 secs
5. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 35 secs
6. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 42 secs
7. Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, at 45 secs
8. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky, at 46 secs
9. Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott, at 48 secs
10. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 54 secs