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The Colombian attacks on a small hill midway down the descent from the finish and is joined by Jungels and Fuglsang whom he easily beats in the final sprint; Thomas defends yellow on the eve of queen stage

Photo: Sirotti

BOB JUNGELS

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CARLOS ALBERTO BETANCUR

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DECATHLON AG2R LA MONDIALE

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GERAINT THOMAS

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JAKOB FUGLSANG

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PARIS - NICE

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TEAM SKY

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13.03.2014 @ 16:43 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) proved that he is very much up for the challenge of winning this year's Paris-Nice when he won today's hilly fifth stage of the race by launching a clever move in the finish. Attacking on a small hill midway down the final descent, he was joined by Bob Jungels (Trek) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) whom he easily beat in the final sprint while Geraint Thomas defended his lead on a day when his Sky team had come under much pressure.

 

Yesterday Carlos Betancur twice tried to attack his rivals in the first hilly stage of Paris-Nice but the Colombian's accelerations didn't have much of an impact. Today he was back to his powerful self when he made a smart move in the finale to take the win on the fifth stage of the race.

 

A strong breakaway had worn the Sky team completely down and when the attacks started to go off on the final climb, Geraint Thomas was completely isolated. Being forced to respond to all accelerations on his own, the race leader was vulnerable and when the riders hit a small climb midway down the descent to the finish, Betancur proved his tactical astuteness.

 

The Colombian launched an acceleration that Thomas chose not to respond to and he was quickly joined by Bob Jungels and Jakob Fuglsang. The trio started to work perfectly together while Thomas was waiting for teammates to get back to the front.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen returned from the back of the 30-rider peloton that was left and started to chase and as more teams realized that Betancur and Fuglsang were both GC dangers, the pursuit got more organized. Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Giant-Shimano, Lotto Belisol, and Garmin-Sharp all took turns on the front, with the former being by far the most active.

 

The front trio kept a 10-second gap for a long time but their advantage started to come down when they passed the flamme rouge. Luckily for Betancur, Fuglsang decided to go for GC more than the stage win and the Dane rode hard inside the final kilometre.

 

Fuglsang tried to do the sprint from the front but he had no response to the powerful acceleration from Betancur who held off Jungels and the Astana rider to take his third win of the seaon.

 

The peloton was led home by Bryan Coquard (Europcar) and they limited their losses to just two seconds. This means that Thomas defended his 3-second lead over John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) who chose not to contest the final sprint for the minor placings. With his win, Betancur moves into 4th, 5 seconds down.

 

Thomas faces an even sterner test in tomorrow's sixth stage which is the queen stage. The riders will cover no less than 221.5km to Fayence and face a very difficult finale. A category 1 climb is located just 19km from the finish and from there it is downhill until the riders hit the bottom of a steep 1.6km climb to the finish for the only uphill finish of the race.

 

An unpredictable affair

The 153km fifth stage from Creches-Sur-Saone to Rive-de-Gier was a highly unpredictable affair. A rather easy start with two early category 3 climbs was followed by a hectic finish that included a category 3 and the final category 2 climb of Cote de Saint-Catherine, summiting just 12.5km from the finish. At just 2.8% gradient, however, the latter was not overly steep and it was widely expected that many sprinters would survive the climbing.

 

For the fifth day in a row, the riders took off in beautiful sunny conditions and luckily there were no non-starters after yesterday's stage that saw the abandonment of Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo).

 

Voeckler takes off

Due to the lumpy profile of the course and the bigger time gaps on GC, many riders expected that a breakaway could have a chance in today's stage. Hence, it was a big fight right from the start of the stage, with several attacks being launched in the opening kilometres.

 

It was hard for anyone to get a significant gap and after 10km of racing, it was still all together. Like yesterday, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was the first to get a real advantage when he attacked with Florian Guillou (Bretagne) at the 12km mark, and 2km further up the road the duo was 11 seconds ahead. After 16km of racing, however, they were caught.

 

A very strong break

This set the scene for the creation of the early breakaway which escaped at the 17km mark. Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) - out for revenge after yesterday's disappointment - Gorka Izagirre (Movistar), Brice Feillu (Bretagne), Matthew Busche (Trek), and Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked and they formed a very strong 5-rider group that was allowed to go up the road.

 

Chavanel had set his sight on the mountains jersey and he beat Feillu and Bakelants at the top of the first climb. At that point, the gap was already 2.30 but that was about as much as they would get.

 

Bad luck for Bardet

A crash brought down Romain Bardet (Ag2r) who is luckily back on his bike, while Egoitz Garcia (Cofidis) threw in the towel and withdrew from the race. On the second climb, Chavanel was again the fastest, beating Feillu and Izagirre into the minor positions.

 

At that point the gap reached a maximum of 2.50 but as Bakelants started the stage only 19 seconds behind Thomas on GC, Sky were reluctant to let it get out of control. They started to chase hard behind the strong group and the gap gradually came down. With 56km to go, it was down to 1.50.

 

Bakelants takes bonus seconds

The riders passed the site of the first intermediate sprint where Bakelants beat Izagirre and Feillu to pick up three valuable bonus seconds and reduce his GC deficit to 16 seconds. At that time, it was also reported that stage one winner Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) had left the race, probably suffering from effects from his stage one crash.

 

At the top of the third climb, Chavanel was again the first, beating Feillu and Buche into the minor positions. At that point, the gap was down to 50 seconds but now Sky decided that they needed to save some riders for the finale.

 

Europcar take control

The British team stopped chasing and the gap went back up to a minute before Europcar took up the pursuit. The French team put Giovanni Bernaudeau and Jerome Cousin on the front and they were riding really hard on the descent as they had ambitions for the stage win with Bryan Coquard.

 

The gap came down to 30 seconds and Europcar's hard riding caused several splits in the peloton on the technical descent. More than 6 groups were formed that gradually came back to two major pelotons as FDJ now also joined Europcar on the front.

 

FDJ contribute to the pace-setting

Anthony Geslin and Benoit Vaugrenard contributed to the pace-setting as the peloton slowed down a bit to allow some of the dropped riders to get back and the gap to the escapees to reopen from 20 to 35 seconds. As they approached the final climb, Sky again took control as Luke Rowe hit the front.

 

Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) who had started the day in 5th, had bad luck to puncture out of the lead group and he fell back to the second one which was led by several riders from Cofidis. Their GC rider Luis Angel Mate and Katusha's Simon Spilak had both missed the split.

 

More seconds for Bakelants

Bakelants sprinted ahead to take the three bonus seconds in the final intermediate sprints ahead of Feillu and Chavanel. At that point the gap was 25 seconds as Team Sky put Vasil Kiriyenka on the front as soon as the final climb started.

 

Dumoulin and his teammates Romain Bardet and Maxime Bouet attacked hard on the climb as they tried to get back to the first peloton and they were joined by Spilak, Yury Trofimov, Mate and a few more riders. Up ahead, Chavanel tried to make a move but Bakelants brought things back together.

 

Chavanel takes off

Chavanel made another move and this time there was no coming back as Izagirre fell off the pace. Meanwhile, Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol) attacked from the peloton as he tried to bridge across to the three chasers.

 

Feillu made an ill-fated attempt to join Chavanel while Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) followed Vanendert's move. Just as he reached him, however, the peloton had caught all escapees except for Chavanel who was still dangling a few metres ahead.

 

Lopez sets a fierce pace

David Lopez was now riding hard on the front for Sky as Laurent Didier (Trek) countered an attack from Vanendert. He quickly passed Chavanel who fell back to the peloton. For some time, the Luxembourger maintained a 10-second gap while Lopez was still setting the pace for Sky.

 

With 14km to go, Didier was caught and this opened the door for Stefan Denifl (IAM) to give it  a go. He was briefly joined by Fabian Wegmann (Garmin-Sharp) but was quickly on his own.

 

Wellens starts the real action

The real action started when Tim Wellens (Lotto Belisol) tried a move that was joined by Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fuglsang. Thomas responded on his own while Boasson Hagen brought things back together behind the race leader.

 

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) now launched an attack that was joined by Bentancur and they quickly passed Denifl. Behind, Thomas was leading the peloton and he closed the move down just at the top of the climb.

 

Nibali attacks on the descent

Nibali accelerated hard on the descent and opened a small gap. Thomas closed it down but when he made a mistake in a corner, Nibali again got a small advantage.

 

This time it was Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) who brought the Giro champion back and this happened just as they hit a small climb. Betancur was quick to exploit a small lull in the group to take off and he was joined by Jungels and Fuglsang.

 

The gap opens up

While Thomas was waiting for Boasson Hagen to get back to the front, the trio got a 10-second gap. Boasson Hagen started to chase and got some help from Lotto Belisol before Degenkolb even took a turn on the front.

 

With the gap remaining stable at around 10 seconds, OPQS and Garmin-Sharp started to contribute. Sebastian Langeveld, Stybar, Bakelants, and Niki Terpstra all did an awful lot of work and they started to bring the gap down.

 

Fuglsang goes for GC

At the flamme rouge, the trio was still clear and this was when Fuglsang decided to go all for GC. The Dane led the group for most of the final kilometre, but when he opened his sprint, he had no answer to Betancur's acceleration.

 

Coquard beat Tom Boonen in the sprint for 4th while Thomas rolled across the line to save his lead on a dramatic day in France.

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