Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) sprinted to victory in the third stage of Paris-Nice, finishing narrowly ahead of Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) by less than half a wheel.
Gerrans almost pipped Valverde to the line in what was a near carbon copy of stage five of this year’s Tour Down Under.
Yet the Australian left himself too much work to do and was unable to overhaul the Spanish rider. Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol) came in third.
Britain’s Bradley Wiggins (Sky) retained his yellow jersey after finishing safely in the bunch on the uphill finish to Le Lac de Vassiviere.
On a cold and grey day in central France, the day’s early break took off and soon built up a lead of 4 minutes 30 seconds with 40km gone.
Roy Curvers (1t4i), Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank) and Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) stayed away until the peloton, lead by Team Sky for the majority of the day, caught up with all but the Saur rider with just 11km left to race.
Engoulvent was soon swamped at the foot of the day’s final climb with 6km to go under a high tempo from green jersey Tom Boonen and the Omega Pharma Quickstep squad.
Wiggins stayed out of trouble as Movistar wound up the tempo for their rider. Valverde timed his finish perfectly, holding off Gerrans by the slightest of margins to claim his fourth win of the season.
Paris-Nice 2012, stage three: Vierzon to Le Lac de Vassiviere 194km
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar in 4-36-19
2. Simon Gerrans (Aus) GreenEdge
3. Gianni Meersman (Bel) Lotto-Belisol
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Rabobank
5. Xavier Florencio (Spa) Katusha
6. Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
7. Maxime Monfort (Bel) Radioshack-Nissan-Trek
8. Jonathan Hivert (Fra) Saur-Sojasun
9. Francesco Gavazzi (Ita) Astana
10. Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM all same time
20. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky at same time
Overall classification after stage three
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky in 9-09-51
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Omega Pharma-Quickstep at 6 secs
3. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC at 11 secs
4. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 14 secs
5. Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan at 18 secs
6. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 20 secs
7. Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM at 22 secs
8. Jose Rojas (Spa) Movistar at 29 secs
9. Simon Spilak (Slo) Katusha at 33 secs
10. Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Astana at 36 secs
Jimmy Engoulvent leads the break
Sky chase the escape group
Photo finish: Simon Gerrans (left) and Alejandro Valverde on the line
Bradley Wiggins with Raymond Poulidor
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Paris-Nice 2012: Stage reports
Stage two: Wiggins rides into lead
Stage one: Wiggins second to Larsson in opening time trial