Today’s Paris-Nice stage began with race favorite Alberto Contador, who won the prologue and won the decisive mountain stage, in the leader’s jersey. The sun rose in the east, the world tilted and spun happily along on its axis, everything in its place. By all accounts, the race for the overall classification had ended with Contador’s attack with four kilometers to ride on Friday’s jaunt up the Montagne de Lure.
But bike racing is an unpredictable business. At the base of the Col de Bourigaille, the eighth of ten obstacles on today’s menu, Caisse d’Épargne went to work on the front in an effort to set up Luis Leon Sanchez for a stage win. Antonio Colom of Katyusha, on screaming good form this Paris-Nice, used their efforts to his advantage and repeatedly attacked the group. The numbers dwindled quickly. Sylvain Chavanel who began the day in third place saw his chances of defending his podium position dwindle, as he lost contact with the group. Fourth placed Frank Schleck also went out the back under the pressure of Colom’s repeated surges. By the summit of the Col, only three riders remained: Colom, Luis Leon Sanchez, and race leader Alberto Contador.
With the major climb behind them, there seemed little reason to expect any further drama. A long technical descent, mixed with quick climbs, greeted the threesome. And here came the surprise.
After a brilliant descent, Sylvain Chavanel regained the leading group of three. Jens Voigt and Frank Schleck of Saxo Bank also made it across to form a chase group of six. Luis Leon Sanchez remained up the road, beyond reach. Alberto Contador had no friends in the chase group. Attacking in turn, the five worked together, forcing Contador to respond. He had no team-mates for help.
With 25 kilometers to ride, Luis Leon Sanchez escaped. Still, Contador appeared to have the race in hand. Though Sanchez looked certain to win the stage, the race leader had appeared invincible this Paris-Nice. Surely, despite the lack of team support, he could defend his race lead.
With five kilometers left to ride, the road turned up steeply. Colom, Chavanel, Schleck, and Voigt accelerated. Suprisingly, Contador could not follow. Invincible on Friday’s ascent of the Montagne de Lure, the race leader cracked with just five kilometers to ride. His dramatic collapse quickly distanced him from the leaders, sent him backwards through the main field, and tumbled him down the classification. A disastrous moment, and the end of Contador’s hopes for overall victory.
Up ahead, Luis Leon Sanchez won the stage and took the race lead, a double victory for the Spanish rider who announced his early season form with a win at Tour Méditerranéen. Antonio Colom finished second, Frank Schleck third, and Sylvain Chavanel fourth, all on same time. Chavanel, who won a stage and wore the leader’s jersey for three days, moved up to second in the general classification, 1.09 behind Sanchez, while Frank Schleck moved up to third at 1.21. Former race leader Alberto Contador sits in fourth at 1.50.
Sunday’s stage around Nice covers three category 1 climbs, before finishing on a descent to the Promenade des Anglais. Usually, the general classification does not change on the final stage. But this race has proved anything but predictable. Why not another surprise?