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With a powerful sprint from a reduced peloton, Demare passed Swift just metres from the line to win a dramatic and windy first stage of Paris-Nice; Swift was second and Bouhanni third while Matthews retained the lead

Photo: A.S.O.

ARNAUD DEMARE

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GROUPAMA-FDJ

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MICHAEL MATTHEWS

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MITCHELTON-SCOTT

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NACER BOUHANNI

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PARIS - NICE

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07.03.2016 @ 17:20 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Arnaud Demare (FDJ) put a year of disappointments behind when he took his first WorldTour win for almost three years by winning a reduced bunch sprint on a dramatic and windy first stage of Paris-Nice. Having been attentive when the peloton split in the crosswinds, he survived the final gravel sectors and finally launched a powerful sprint to pass Ben Swift (Sky) just metres from the line. The Brit had to settle for second and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) for third while Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) was fourth and retained the lead.

 

When he won the Vattenfall Cyclassics in 2012 and two WorldTour races in 2013, Arnaud Demare looked destined to become one of the most successful sprinters. In 2014, he won no less than 15 races and seemed to be unstoppable in his march towards the top of the sprinting hierarchy.

 

Maybe it was the internal rivalry with Nacer Bouhanni that spurred him on. In any case, his fortunes changed when his rival left the FDJ team and he took over sole leadership in the sprints. His 2015 season was made up of a series of disappointment and he ended the year with just two victories.

 

This year he is determined to return to his best and after winning a stage at La Méditerranéenne he could not have asked for a better start. Today he won his first ever WorldTour race on home soil when he emerged as the fastest in a dramatic first stage of Paris-Nice.

 

The race really came to life with 44km to go when a four-rider breakaway of Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Steven Tronet (Fortuneo-Vital Concept), Thierry Hupont (Delko Marseille) and Perrig Quemeneur (Direct Energie) had an advantage of 3.45 over the peloton which was led by Orica-GreenEDGE and Etixx-QuickStep. The peloton hit a crosswind section and this inspired Sky to try to do some damage.

 

Nicolas Roche, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard hit the front and after a nervous passage through a city, the peloton exploded to pieces when they entered an exposed road. A 20-rider group managed to get clear, with Sky, Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff making up most of the group. Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift were there with their teammates while Marcel Kittel, Tom Boonen, Nacer Bouhanni, Alberto Contador and race leader Michael Matthews had all been attentive.

 

Demate had missed the split but with a few FDJ teammates he made the junction almost immediately and it was a 40-50-rider group that gathered. Richie Porte, Jesus Herrada, Tom Dumoulin, Arthur Vichot, Wilco Kelderman, Simon Yates, Ion Izagirre, Romain Bardet, Tony Gallopin, Tim Wellens, Sylvain Chavanel, Wouter Wippert, Patrick Bevin, Rafal Majka, Sergio Henao, Niccolo Bonifazio and Edward Theuns had all been attentive and were among the main names in the group.

 

The entire Katusha and Lampre-Merida teams had missed the move as had IAM and most of the Fortuneo teams. Those four teams started to work in the second group but they were already 40 seconds behind with 40km to go. In the peloton, Rowe, van Baarle, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenberg, Daryl Impey, Koen de Kort, Roche, Stannard, Rowe, Nikolas Maes and even Matthews and Kittel were all contributing to the pace-setting as everybody was nervous in the windy conditions.

 

With 32km to go, the escapees just had an advantage of just 1 minute while the gap between the two peloton had gone out to a minute. However, the commitment waned in the first group as they entered the final 30km and suddenly Boonen, Rowe, Angelo Tulik and Quentin Pacher even got a small gap as he pace went down in the group.

 

As a consequence, the gap between the two pelotons was down to 45 seconds with 27km to go. Boonen and Roche again upped the pace but the second peloton was getting closer.

 

With 24km to go, they hit the difficult 14km finishing circuit that included two dirt road sectors and a small climb. At this point, the escapees were just 15 seconds ahead and they lost ground as the fight for position started.

 

As they hit the first dirt sector, De Gendt split the break as Quemeneur and Tronet were dropped and they were immediately picked up by the peloton which was again led by Rowe and Stannard for Sky. Theuns also took some turns for Trek while the gap stayed around 10 seconds.

 

At the end of the sector, Hupond decided to sit up and De Gendt dangled a few metres ahead for a little longer before he was swallowed up with 19.5km to go. The pace briefly went down massively and so the second peloton continued to close the gap.

 

As they approached the climb and the second sector, Adrien Petit and Sylvain Chavanel took control for Direct Energie before Pierre-Luc Pericon (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) attacked as they hit the ascent. He was joined by Angelo Tulik (Direct Energie), Gregory Rast (Trek) and Lawson Craddock (Cannondale) but those three riders were dropped when they hit the gravel roads. Here Perichon pressed on and crested the summit to win the KOM sprint while Stannard brought the three chasers back and made the peloton explode.

 

Perichon had a solid advantage as he returned to the tarmac and headed towards the first passage of the finish line. Stannad and Rowe led the chase but the strong Frenchman had pushed the advantage out to 20 seconds with 15km to go.

 

There was an intermediate sprint at the passage of the line and it was of course Perichon who took the maximum of 3 bonus seconds. The GC riders battled it out for the remaining second and after Daryl Impey had done the lead-out, Matthews easily crossed the line in second, with Thomas holding off Contador in the battle for third.

 

The second group had accelerated hard on the gravel sections and had split into several groups. At the passage of the line, Dmitriy Gruzdev was leading the group for Astana and he brought the likes of Alexander Kristoff, Rui Costa and Luis Leon Sanchez back with 12km to go. However, Kristoff had a mechanical and was forced to drop back to his team car while the fight for position again intensified.

 

Magnus Cort briefly hit the front for Orica-GreeEDGE before Sky again took control, bringing Perichon back with 9km to go. Rowe and Stannard led the group onto the first gravel sector and got some help from Petit and Tulik from Direct Energie.

 

Matthews suffered a blow when Impey punctured but most of the group stayed intact on the first dirt sector. As they exited, the fight for position again intensified but Tim Wellens still managed to rejoin the group after a mechanical.

 

With 5km to go, disaster struck for Chavanel  as he suffered a puncture. As they headed up the climb, he sprinted past the many riders that were dropped while Stannard led the peloton. The pace briefly went down as the GC riders patrolled the front until Swift upped the pace for Sky.

 

Just as Chavanel made the junction, Ion Izagirre (Movistar) attacked, followed by Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo). Thomas brought the trio back and it was Izagirre that led the peloton over the top to win the KOM sprint and take the mountains jersey. The fast pace made the peloton split to pieces and Kittel was one of the riders to lose contact.

 

Gallopin upped the pace on the descent and strung out the peloton in the very technical finale. With 2km to go, Vanmarcke made a brief attack but it was the counterattack by Edward Theuns (Trek) that worked.

 

The Belgian quickly got a big advantage before Dylan van Baarle hit the front for Cannondale. Cofidis took over with Arnold Jeannesson and Christophe Laporte but things were still looking good for Theuns with 500m to go.

 

Patrick Bevin hit the front for Cannondale before Swift launched a long sprint. That spelled the end for Theuns who was passed less than 200m from the line. Swift looked like he would take the win but suddenly Demare surged ahead from far behind and managed to pass the Brit to take the win. Nacer Bouhanni had to settle for third.

 

Matthews could only manage fourth in the sprint but with his two bonus seconds from the intermediate sprint, he extended his lead over Dumoulin to three seconds. He takes that into tomorrow’s second stage which is another flat affair with just a single category 3 climb. However, bad weather is forecasted so we could be in for another crosswinds drama.

 

Dirt roads in the finale

After the prologue, the riders faced a very tricky and nervous first stage that brought them over 198km from Conde-sur-Vesgre to Vendome. The terrain was almost completely flat but the roads were exposed to the wind. With 24km to go, the riders hit a 14km finishing circuit that included to dirt road sectors and a category 3 climb. The climb and the final sector ended just 3.5km from the finish and the finale was very technical with lots of turns.

 

It was a very cold and windy day when the 175 riders who took the start yesterday, gathered. They even faced some snow in the early part of the stage but it stayed dry for most of the day.

 

Four riders get clear

There was no great desire to race hard from the start and therefore succeeded Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Perrig Quéméneur (Direct Energie), Steven Tronet (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and Thierry Hupond (Delko Marseille) managed to get away right from the start. After 7 km, they were already 3.45 ahead of the peloton and the gap grew steadily during the first hour. It was 5.25 after 12km of racing, 7.00 after 14km, 8.20 at the 27.5km mark and 8.30 after 40km of racing. The tailwind meant that it was fast and the riders covered 44.1km during the first 60 minutes.

 

As the snow began to fall, the gap reached 9.10 at the 66km mark. The escapees held a nice pace and covered 43.9km during the second hour. At the same time, De Gendt managed to beat Tronet and Hupond in the day's first intermediate sprint.

 

Etixx-QuickStep and Orica-GreenEDGE lead the chase

At this time, the peloton had finally accelerated under the impetus of Orica-GreenEDGE and Etixx-QuickStep and at the passage of the sprint, the gap had been reduced to 7.45. After 113km of racing, it was seven minutes and it was 6.30 as they entered the final 60km.

 

Sam Bewley, Mitch Docker (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Pieter Serry (Etixx-QuickStep) were sharing the pace-setting duties and had brought the gap down to 5 minutes with 60km to go. As the break hadn’t accelerated yet, they were losing ground quickly and it was down to 3.50 ten kilometres later.

 

Entering the final 50km, the escapees upped the pace and managed to stabilize the gap. That prompted Katusha to contribute to the chase with Pavel Kochetkov but he had barely taken a single turn before Sky surged away to start the drama.

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