Today in Stage Three of Paris-Nice we saw a very surprising turn of events.
On a day primed for another big bunch sprint, aggressive racing by teams QuickStep and Rabobank shattered the peloton in the crosswinds, leaving race leader Alberto Contador behind.
A breakaway immediately formed on the windy, rainy day with Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Maciej Bodnar (Liquigas), Jürgen Roelandts (Silence-Lotto), Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux), and Tom Veelers (Skil-Shimano) leading the pack. They gained a maximum lead of seven minutes as they climbed the day's three big hills.
When there's 50 kilometers to go, sprint teams typically determine this to be the point at which to reel in the break, head to the front of the pack, and start hammering. Once the break is caught, the sprinters look at each other, keep at the front, and wait to duke it out.
Today, the weather conditions allowed the sprint teams to do that and more.
The high pace and high winds created an echelon on the road—a very long, thin string of riders, rather than a big bunched pack. The front 20 riders in the main field, including riders from QuickStep and Rabobank, dropped the rest of the field, including Contador (Astana).
The front group kept a blistering pace. They then knew that they could compete not only for the stage, but maybe even for the overall lead if they could distance themselves from Contador.
They ravenously swallowed up the early breakaway. With five Rabobank riders in the break, it looked like they had everything under control for the sprint.
Unfortunately for them, their plans were upset.
Sylvain Chavanel (QuickStep) and his teammate, Kevin Seeldrayers, took full advantage of the work from Rabobank to take the win over two of its members, Juan Antonio Flecha and Sebastian Langeveld.
With today's win, Chavanel, who wore the leader's jersey at last year's Vuelta a España and Paris-Nice, takes not only the stage but the overall lead. He leads Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) by 33 seconds and Flecha by 36.
Contador slipped down to sixth at 1:03 off the pace.