Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) broke the Arnaud Demare (FDJ) dominance at the 4 Days of Dunkirk when the strong Frenchman used a hilly circuit and a powerful attack on the final climb to get rid of his faster rival. Joining forces with Michal Valgren (Tinkoff-Saxo), he held off a chasing sextet that included Demare, by 12 seconds and beat his companion in a photo finish while also moving into 2nd on GC, just 2 seconds behind Demare.
Going into the 4 Days of Dunkirk, Sylvain Chavanel claimed that he was feeling excellently well on the bike after having recovered from the bronchitis that derailed his classics campaign. Over the first few days, he has proved himself right in the assessment by making several strong attacks in the first two stages but until today he had been unable to break the stranglehold of the FDJ team and race leader Arnaud Demare.
Today he turned things around when he used a hilly circuit in the finale to put the in-form Demare under pressure. Having used his IAM teammate Jerome Pineau to make things tough for his rivals, he finally asked another teammate, Kevyn Ista, to up the pace on the penultimate climb with 15km to go.
The Belgian set such a fast pace that only Chavanel and Michael Valgren could follow him and moments later, the Frenchman took off. Only the young Dane Valgren could keep up with him and they crested the summit with a nice gap over the peloton.
On the second climb, they extended their lead over the Demare group while Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) got to within metres of bridging across. On the fast descent, the tiny Frenchman fell back to a 5-rider group that had formed which included Demare and his teamate Pierrick Fedrigo, Sebastien Delfosse (Wallonie), Arnaud Gerard (Bretagne) and Florian Senechal (Cofidis).
Dumoulin made the wise decision to fall back to the chasing group and here he combined forces with Demare, Fedrigo and Senechal who all did their utmost to bring back the two strong time trialists. However, the gap stayed relatively stable between the 10- and 15-second marks all the way to the finish and with 2km to go, it became clear that they wouldn't make the junction.
With 700m to go, Chavanel hit the front to make sure that the pace wouldn't slow down too much but he also kept a watchful eye on Valgren. Finally, he opened the sprint from the front but Valgren came fast from behind.
The Dane drew up alongside the Frenchman and they crossed the line side by side. However, Chavanel was declared the winner in a very close photo finish.
Dumoulin won the sprint of the chasers 12 seconds later but Demare reduced his time losses sufficiently to keep his overall lead. However, he heads into the fourth stage with just a 2-second advantage over Chavanel.
Chavanel will get another chance to attack in tomorrow's fourth and penultimate stage that is an even more difficult affair. After a hilly opening, the riders end the day by doing 6 laps of a difficult 20.6km finishing circuit that includes two big climbs and a rolling final 12km back to the finish in Licques.
A windy day
After two relatively flat stages, the riders were challenged by two consecutive days in hillier terrain. The first one offered 197.6km from Fruges to Calais and had a very undulating profile. After a lumpy first part of the stage that includes one categorized climb, a flat section led to the exciting final part. Here the riders did four laps of a 16.1km circuit that included two tough climbs. Having finished the descent the final time, the riders rolled along flat roads to the finish in Calais, with the distance from the top to the line being just 10.5km.
After yesterday's very rainy affair, the riders were pleased to take off under dry conditions. However, the wind that has marred the race so far, was even stronger than in the previous days and at the finish, wind gusts of up to 85km/h were expected. As a consequence the finishing area only contained the most necessary equipment and the organizers had decided not to set up most of the banners that marked the distance to the finish.
A fast start
With the stage being very lumpy and many riders already far back on GC, the stage was seen as a good opportunity for a breakaway. Hence, it was no surprise that the first part of the stage was raced at a fierce pace and the riders got to the 38km mark before a group finally managed to take off.
When the elastic snapped, it was a very big and strong group that got clear as 10 riders made up the day's move. Clément Koretzky (Bretagne-Séché), Brian Bulgac (Giant-Shimano), Hugo Houle, Blel Kadri (AG2R-La Mondiale), Alexandre Pichot (Europcar), Julien Fouchard (Cofidis), Michael Mørkøv (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ralf Matzka (NetApp-Endura), Flavien Dassonville (Big Mat-Auber) and Julien El Fares (La Pomme-Marseille) were allowed to build up a gap that reached 5.25.
FDJ lead the chase
With Houle and Mørkøv being only 1.49 behind Demare on GC, the peloton soon started to chase and they brought the gap down to 3.20 with 70km to go. Unfortunately, the escapees had to stop at a railroad crossing and so lost much of their advantage. Nonetheless, the gap went back up to 3.56 with 63km to go as the FDJ team of Arnaud Demare set the pace in the peloton.
The first time up the climbs, Tim De Troyer (Wanty) launched an attack but as Matthieu Ladagnous and Yoann Offredo continued to ride on the front for FDJ, they quickly brought him back. However, the action had brought the gap down to just 3.05.
The peloton splits in the crosswind
As the riders hit a section with crosswind, the peloton split into two bigger groups, with riders constantly falling back from the first to the second one. As they turned into a headwind, however, FDJ again slowed down and things came back together.
The fierce acceleration had brought the gap down to 2.05 as Ladagnous and Offredo continued their steady pace-setting. As they hit the climb for the second time, Wallonie gave them a short breather before the pair again took over the pace-setting.
El Fares drops his chain
The first time up the climb, Dassonville had beaten El Fares in the sprint for the KOM points and at the second passage, the pair again battled it out. As El Fares dropped his chain in the sprint, Dassonville again took maximum points.
At the top, the gap was down to just 1.30 and things got even more intense when IAM tried to split things in the crosswinds section. Roger Kluge hit the front and he got a gap with Chavanel while behind the peloton started to splinter. FDJ kept their composure though and Ladagnous and Offredo gradually brought the duo back and soon after most of the riders that had been dropped, rejoined the peloton.
Pineau makes his first move
El Fares briefly got a small gap as he was clearly one of the strongest in the break but Dassonville brought it back together. The 10 escapees passed the site of the day's final intermediate sprint with a one-minute gap but had no interest in the points.
As the riders hit the second climb for the third time, IAM sent Jerome Pineau up the road and he was joined by Steven Tronet (BigMat). The dup crested the summit with a 10-second gap but as Ladagnous and Offredo continued their steady pace-setting, they were brought back when they again turned into a headwind.
El Fares takes off
Up ahead, El Fares had beaten Dassonville in the sprint for the KOM points. This time he continued his attack and he stayed clear on his own for a little while but with 21km to go, he was brought back.
The gap was now down to 25 seconds and so Bulgac decided to attack. He was joined by Matzka, Koretzky and Kadri while the rest of the early break was swallowed up.
Chavanel and Valgren escape
The four escapees managed to reopen their gap from 15 to 25 seconds but as they approached the first climb for the final time, IAM started to ride hard on the front. Marcel Aregger took a huge turn on the front until Pineau again took off on the lower slopes.
Valgren joined him but surprisingly Ista brought it back together. The Belgian went straight to the front and set a fierce pace that only Valgren and Chavanel could match.
Dumoulin almost bridges the gap
The break had now split up and only Kadri was left in the front. When Valgren hit the front, however, only Chavanel could keep up with him and the pair quickly passed the lone Frenchman. They crested the summit with a solid gap over the nearest chasers as Chavanel really drove the pace.
On the final climb, Dumoulin almost bridged across but the tiny Frenchman fell just a few metres short. Instead, he decided to drop back to the chase group with Demare, Fedrigo, Senechal, Delfosse and Gerard that had now formed.
A fierce pursuit
From there it was big pursuit between the front duo, their nearest chasers and the bunch. The Demare group was constantly 10-15 seconds behind the front duo while the diminished peloton - led by Wanty and Topsport Vlaanderen - constantly lost ground.
With 2km to go, the gap was still 12 seconds and it was clear that the front duo would stay away. Valgren took a big turn past the flamme rouge before Chavanel again took over. After taking a solid turn, he opened the sprint from the front and held off Valgren by the tiniest of margins while Dumoulin led the chasers across the line with a time loss of 12 seconds, just enough for Demare to keep a tiny 2-second lead.
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