Caisse d'Epargne's Luis-Leon Sanchez delivered the next in a series of surprises that have shaken the Paris-Nice leaderboard over the last few days. He stormed up the final climb of Côte de Mons, the 10th categorized climb of the day, and took not only the stage win, but the overall lead as well.
Alberto Contador (Astana) had catapulted back into the lead yesterday with a blistering attack up the Montagne de Lure, but today he was a different rider. Riding defensively all day, he was feeling the effects not only of his efforts yesterday, but also from a few mistakes during today's stage.
"The break did not go until kilometre 65, and before then it was just chaos, which made me work from the start. That's where I was hurt. The race was very fast, and I forgot to eat and drink enough.
"At 40 km to go I was alone and though I was answering all the attacks well, at 15 km to my body was completely empty. I was left without any strength. From this moment the goal was just to get to the finish," said Contador after the stage.
His sentiments were reflected in the day of racing. Rather unusually, the breakaway did not form until very late in the race. With 10 mountains to climb, the first of which happening very soon after the start, the terrain as well as the sheer aggressiveness of the peloton today put a lot of strain on the riders to keep up.
That breakaway finally did escape at kilometer 65, containing Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Sébastien Joly (Française des Jeux), Karsten Kroon (Team Saxo Bank), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Alexandre Pichot (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Joan Horrach (Team Katusha), Maxime Bouet (Agritubel), and Martin Velits (Team Milram).
Before they took off, Tony Martin (Columbia), the current KOM leader, padded his lead yet again by taking the first two summits.
With the peloton back together going into the final two climbs, an elite group formed containing Contador, Sanchez, Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt (Saxobank), former leader Sylvain Chavanel and Kevin Seeldraeyers (QuickStep), and Toni Colom (Katusha).
Contador, Sanchez, and Colom took off and quickly gained an advantage, but the attacks on yellow-jersey Contador soon became too much for the Astana rider.
His effects of not eating enough and suffering a hunger "bonk" took their toll on the last climb and Sanchez rode away and gained enough time to take the lead.
Contador lost almost three minutes on the day, and slots back into fourth overall with a 1:50 deficit.
Meanwhile, Chavanel rode a smart race today to slot back into second place overall at 1:09 behind Sanchez, and Frank Schleck climbed up one spot to third at 1:21 arrears.
Tomorrow's final stage, a large circuit in the southeastern corner of France, starting and ending in the city of Nice, doesn't look particularly hard compared to the two previous stages.
But it is important to remember that last year, eventual winner David Rebellin did not take the overall lead until the last day, and likewise, when Contador won Paris-Nice in 2007, he, too, did not secure the lead until the final day.
Anything can happen tomorrow, and probably will.