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Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) extended his overall lead at Paris-Nice, claiming his second stage victory of the race atop the Col de la Couillole.
Jonas Vingegaard launched the first acceleration after the foundations were laid by his Jumbo-Visma team, but the Tour de France champion then struggled to respond to stinging attacks from Pogačar and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ).
The trio tussled on the upper slopes of the 15.7km final climb, with Vingegaard repeatedly clawing his way back to set up a three-way dash to the line at the 1600-metre-high summit.
The Dane even opened the sprint, but soon faded, while Pogačar – as he did atop La Loges des Gardes on stage 4 – out-kicked Gaudu to take his seventh win of the season.
Opening a two-second lead on Gaudu by the line, as well as adding 10 bonus seconds (four more than the Frenchman), Pogačar doubled his lead at the top of the overall standings, from six seconds to 12 seconds. Vingegaard finished third at six seconds to remain third overall but is now 58 seconds down on his Tour de France rival.
“We were racing full-gas from start, Ineos did a big effort in the middle of the stage and coming to final climb everyone was already a bit dead. For sure today was one of the toughest battles for the finish,” Pogačar said.
Ineos did indeed split the peloton on the sharp and narrow roads up to the intermediate sprint and down from it, but there was a regrouping as Jumbo-Visma led through the valley drag ahead of the category-1 final climb. Tobias Foss worked all the way to just over 6km from the summit, by which point only a dozen riders remained in his wheel, and then Vingegaard had little option but to hit out.
However, as he began to wind down his first tester, and as he looked around over his right shoulder, Pogačar hit him with an immediate counter-punch in the blind spot on his left. The Slovenian went clear, but it wasn’t decisive, as Vingegaard and Gaudu distinguished themselves from the rest and clawed their way back with 4km to go.
Gaudu soon attacked and Vingegaard’s struggles were immediately apparent. He got back on but was dropped again when Gaudu kicked for a second time with 2.3km to go. After initially refusing a turn, Pogačar did offer one to Gaudu but still Vingegaard clawed his way back inside the final kilometre.
By that point, however, there only looked like one winner, and so it proved.
“[My attack] was a bit early, but I didn’t want too many riders in the front, so it would be less stop-start. In the end it went perfectly how I imagined it,” Pogačar said before turning his attention to Sunday’s ever-dangerous finale in the hills behind Nice.
“Tomorrow is another really hard day – I think the hardest of the whole Paris-Nice but the climbs are better for me tomorrow. We try to defend as hard as possible.”
How it unfolded
The stage set off in lightning fashion, leaving the blue skies and shores of the French Riviera and propelled inland by a stiff tailwind. There was also the attractiveness of this stage from a breakaway perspective – not least after the cancellation of stage 6 – and so the bunch ripped along at more than 50km/h in a full-gas start to proceedings.
After several failed attacks, the first one to stick came from Lilian Calmejane (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) who attacked along with Javie Romo (Movistar) and Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe). They were soon joined by four more: Larry Warbasse (Ag2R-Citroen), Florian Sénéchal (Soudal Quick Step), Brent Van Moer (Lotto Dstny) and Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech).
The next to join were Dorian Godon (AG2R) and Soren Kragh Andersen (Alpecin Deceuninck), and they had Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) with them at first before dropping the sprinter on the Côte de Tourette-du-Château, the first of the two category 1 climbs. Kelland O’Brien (Jayco Alula), Josh Tarling (Ineos Grenadiers) and Pascal Eenkhoorn (Lotto Dstny) were the next to make it on board as more moves went on the lower slopes of the long climb.
Lucas Hamilton (Jayco Alula) and Remi Cavagna (Soudal Quick Step) were next, and finally came a quintet of Gregor Muhlberger (Movistar), Harry Sweeney (Lotto Dstny), Daan Hoole (Trek Segafredo), Kobe Goossens (Intermarché), David De la Cruz (Astana Qazaqstan). Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla) was with them at first but then sat back.
Eventually, by the last couple of kilometres of the Tourette-du-Château, the race settled down into a traditional break-bunch format, with the front group swelling to a final total of 19 riders and enjoying a lead of almost two minutes over the peloton led by Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates men. Eenkhoorn claimed maximum points at the top of the climb but there was little chance of much consequential damage being done to the lead of Jonas Gregaard (Uno-X) in the mountains classification.
While the breakaway was swelling, the peloton was shrinking. Six riders did not take to the start, mostly through cold-like illness: two-time Paris-Nice winner Max Schachmann and his Bora-Hasngrohe teammate Sam Bennett, Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), and the Israel-Premier Tech trio of Taj Jones, Guy Sagiv and Tom Van Asbroeck. Out on the road, there were three more early abandons, including green jersey and stage 2 winner Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), who was ill, and a dup who both crashed: Ruben Fernandez (Cofidis) and Soren Waerenskjold (Uno-X). Later, on the descent down from the first climb, Tarling crashed out of the breakaway and was taken to hospital for scans.
The gap stabilised at around 2:30 on the downhill but then the peloton started racing towards the sharp kicker that led to the intermediate sprint with 45km to go. Up ahead, De la Cruz took maximum points and drew Goossens, Romo, and Sweeny into an attack, while in the bunch the narrow roads started to have an effect and the assault continued onto the next downhill. It was Ineos who took command and they raced downhill, with the peloton splitting into several groups, notably after a major pinch point over a narrow bridge.
The peloton was chopped down to 30 riders, and it continued for a good 20km until the second portion of the peloton eventually regained contact on the false flat drag up to the final climb. There was a sigh of relief from Kevin Vauquelin (Arkea-Samsic), who was the most high-profile GC rider dropped. A nasty crash in the peloton then saw Trek-Segafredo’s leader Mattias Skjelmose forced to abandon having crashed onto his face.
On the valley road, the breakaway split, with Romo, Goossens, Eenkhoorn, Cabot, and Politt going clear. Jayco-AlUla scrambled in the group behind but it was soon a lost cause. Back in the bunch, Jumbo-Visma took over from Ineos in the valley, with Nathan van Hooydonck leading the way for Tobias Foss to take over on the final climb.
The final climb
The Col de la Couillole (15.7km at 7.1%) began abruptly, and Goosens immediately attacked the five-man break. Romo went after him and soon got on terms, while every other member of the break quickly slipped back to the bunch.
The bunch itself thinned quickly under Foss’ impetus, down to just 25 riders ager the opening kilometre. Pogačar soon lost Bjerg and Grossschartner, leaving him fully isolated. Gaudu was soon in the same boat, as Foss continued his turn and continued to reduce the group on the first part of the climb.
By the time they’d reeled in Romo and, finally, Goosens, with 9km to go, there were just 13 riders remaining: Foss, Vingegaard, Pogacar, Gaudu, Bardet, Jorgenson, Yates, Harper, Paret-Peintre, Haig, Mader, Sivakov, Powless, Latour. The biggest casualty was Martínez, who cracked early and plummeted.
Foss continued his charge until 6km to go. The fact that he was fading was betrayed by the way Harper was able to attack. Foss swoon swung off and Vingegaard took it up, issuing a sustained acceleration that was just shy of an attack. Pogačar sensed an opportunity and, just as Vingegaard was taking stock, hit him with a counter-punch on his blind side. Pogačar went clear but never sailed away as Vingegaard gave chase and burned everyone off his wheel in turn – apart from Gaudu.
Gaudu sat in the wheel for a good while before offering a turn to make the catch with Pogačar with 4km to go. The Frenchman was soon on the attack himself, and while Pogačar was straight on it, Vingegaard was distanced. The Dane worked his way back but he was gone again when Gaudu kicked once more with 2.3km to go – he wasn’t cracking but couldn’t respond to the sharp accelerations.
Pogacar and Gaudu then made their way rather calmly to the final kilometre, but another lull allowed Vingegaard back in for a third time. The Tour de France champion elected to open the sprint from range, and Gaudu was slightly caught out with his hands in his pockets. As expected, Vingegaard faded, and Pogačar had the jump and the legs to roundly beat Gaudu and further stamp his authority on Paris-Nice and the season in general.
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