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The former French champion overcomes an early crash to position himself well for the final bunch sprint and comfortably beats Degenkolb and Meersman on a crash-marred day

Photo: Sirotti

GIANNI MEERSMAN

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GROUPAMA-FDJ

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JOHN DEGENKOLB

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NACER BOUHANNI

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PARIS - NICE

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09.03.2014 @ 16:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) repeated his 2013 performance of winning the first sprint of the Paris-Nice when the former French champion emerged as the fastest in the bunch kick on the opening day of the 2014 edition of the Race to the Sun. He took a comfortable win ahead of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) on a crash-marred day to become the first leader of the first European WorldTour race of the season.

 

One year ago Nacer Bouhanni took his first WorldTour victory when he powered clear to win the first road stage of the 2013 edition of the Paris-Nice and take the leader's jersey in his home race. Today he repeated that performance when the 2014 race kicked off with a flat stage in Northern France.

 

Bouhanni showed his impressive burst of speed when he easily passed Gianni Meersman who had been the first to start his sprint when the race came down to the expected bunch kick. John Degenkolb who was his biggest pre-race rival, was well-positioned on his wheel but the German had not enough power to come around his faster rival. Meersman rolled across the line in 3rd.

 

Earlier in the stage, nothing had suggested that Bouhanni would come away with the win as the Frenchman had hit the deck at the midpoint of the race. He spent a lot of time receiving treatment for a bruised knee from the medical car but apparently the injuries were not enough to hold him back.

 

Bouhanni was not the only rider to hit the deck in a race that was marred by several crashes. While most of them had no major consequences, one of them certainly did. Near the end, one of the race favourites, Roman Bardet (Ag2r), was involved in a tumble and even though he was unhurt, the crash had a disastrous impact on his race.

 

The crash had split the peloton in two and Bardet even found himself further back. He managed to rejoin the second group but never saw the front of the race again. At the finish line, he had lost 1.09, meaning that his dreams for an overall win have been crushed.

 

The race also saw the abandonment of one of the pre-race favourites as a stomach bug forced Tejay van Garderen out of the race early on.

 

With today's win, Bouhanni is also the first leader of the race but as Meersman scored 5 bonus seconds in intermediate sprint, the time difference between the two first riders on GC is only 1 second. Bouhanni will face his first jersey defence tomorrow when the race continues with a 205km stage from Ramboillet to Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche and as it is mostly flat, it could be a good opportunity for the fast Frenchman to double his tally.

 

A flat stage

The 72nd edition of the Paris-Nice kicked off with a flat 162.5km stage that started and finished in Mantes-la-Jolie close to the French capital. After a short opening stretch, the main part of the stage took place on a 33km finishing circuit that had to be covered 3 times. Despite the presence of a small climb that would determine the first leader of the KOM classification, the stage was mostly flat and expected to be one for the sprinters.

 

With this being a non-windy day on a flat course, everybody expects it all to come down to a sprint and so there was no battle to get into the early breakaway. In fact, Christophe Laborie (Bretagne) attacked from the gun and he was allowed to go up the road immediately. After 3km of racing, he was already 1.35 ahead.

 

A big gap

The gap kept growing and was 5 minutes at the 9km mark and reached a maximum of 10.45 after 23.5km. At that point, Joh Degenkolb's Giant-Shimano team started to chase, gradually bringning down the gap.

 

Laborie and Bretagne had made it clear tha their goal is the mountains jersey and he was the first across the line in the first KOM sprint. Simon Yates (Orica) and Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) scored a few points by being the first from the peloton but they only did so by doing chase work on the front.

 

More teams start to chase

Giant-Shimano was now joined by Matt Goss' Orica-GreenEDGE team and Nacer Bouhanni's FDJ team on the front and those three teams have combined forces to gradually bring down the gap. After 50km of racing, it was 9 minutes and with 73km to go, it was 6.35.

 

At the first intermediate sprint, Laborie was of course first but with the race expected to come down to a matter of seconds, it was no surprise to see the GC riders sprint for the positions behind Laborie. Meersman scored 2 seconds for being 2nd while Sky's leader Geraint Thomas took a single second for being 3rd.

 

Bouhanni crashes

A little later, Bouhanni was involved in the crash and he immediately attended the medical car which treated his bruised knee. At the same time, news broke that van Garderen had left the race due to illness.

 

Another crash brought down Mattia Cattaneo, Jose Serpa (both Lampre-Merida) and Vasil Kiriyenka (Sky) but none of them were badly hurt. With 71km to go, the gap had come down to 4.50 as Europcar was now leading the peloton with Quemeneur.

 

No real chase

Europcar got a little help from FDJ but in general there was no whole-hearted chase going on. The peloton wanted to avoid to catch Laborie too early and so the peloton mostly had a flat front end as several teams tried to keep their captains safe but nobody really wanted to chase hard.

 

With 60km to go, Alessandro Vanotti (Astana) was the next rider to crash while Bouhanni was wise enough to go back to the medical car on the main climb, getting the chance to hold onto it and save some energy. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) decided to make the race a bit harder and he set the pace on the slopes leading Quemeneur and the rest of the peloton across the line behind Laborie who secured himself the mountains jersey by winning the final KOM sprint of the day.

 

Laborie waits for the peloton

The gap was now down to 1.10 and as Laborie had reached his target, he decided to wait for the peloton. The group slowed down again after the climb but with 50km to go, Laborie was back in the fold.

 

No team was taking control in the peloton, with Quemeneur being the only one to take occasional turns on the front. As the riders approached the penultimate passage of the finish line, however, things started to ramp up a bit as it was the site of the final intermediate sprint.

 

Bakelants makes a move

FDJ took control through the narrow streets but it was Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) who kicked things off when he tried to sneak away from the peloton. Astana shut it down immediately but were passed by Xabier Zandio and the Sky train who wanted to prepare the sprint for Thomas.

 

Omega Pharma-Quick Step sent Gert Steegmans off in a short attack but when he took the long way in roundabout, he was back in the peloton. Lampre-Merida tried to take control for Rui Costa but it was Omega Pharma-Quick Step who did the real lead-out for Meersman.

 

Meersmans scores bonus seconds

The Belgian team was passed by IAM who set Sylvain Chavanel perfectly up for the sprint but he could only manage third behind Meersman and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), with the former increasing his tally of bonus seconds to 5.

 

Tinkoff-Saxo hit the front with Nicki Sørensen after the sprint and also got a bit of assistance from a Cofidis rider. Meanwhile, a crash brought down Maxime Monfort (Lotto Belisol) and Taylor Phinney (BMC) but they were unhurt.

 

Bardet crashes

Again the pace slowed down as no one wanted to take control but the finale kicked off with 21km to go when a crash brought down several riders, including Jelle Vanendert, Ramunas Navardauskas, Kris Boeckmans, and Bardet.

 

The young Frenchman had several teammates stop to wait for him but the crash had split the peloton into four groups. The second one quickly managed to rejoin the first one but now Giant-Shimano had started to prepare the sprint, making it very hard for the next group to get back.

 

Many riders are caught out

John Gadret, Sylwester Szmyd, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Andy Schleck,  Matti Breschel, Michael Matthews and Thor Hushovd were some of the riders who had been caught out. The gap between the two groups were 28 seconds with 12km to go while Bardet' group was at 50 seconds at that point.

 

Giant-Shimano were still setting the pace, with a small contribution from Jerome Pineau (IAM) but with 11km to go, it was Belkin who strung things further out. Behind, Bardet managed to rejoin the second peloton which was led by the Bretagne team which tried to bring their GC rider Eduardo Sepuleveda back to the front.

 

A battle for control

With 8km to go, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Giant-Shimano battled for position on the front as the gap was stable at around 30 seconds. Giant-Shimano came out on top and let the peloton all the way to the 3km to go mark when Jan Bakelants took over for Omega Pharma-Quick Step.

 

The two riders from the Belgian team looked back to realize that they had lost their sprinters Meersman and Tom Boonen and so left the front to Giant-Shimano with 1km to go. However, the Dutch team had lost Degenkolb and they had to stop their effort inside the final kilometre.

 

Cannondale was briefly setting the pace until Omega Pharma-Quick Step moved up with three riders, Meersman being on the back of the train. However, he had Bouhanni and Degenkolb in tow and despite the excellent lead-out, Meersman had to settle for 3rd as Bouhanni again won the first sprint of the Paris-Nice.

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