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The Dutchman and Welshman combine forces on the steep Cote de Mont Brouilly to hold off a strong chase group; Slagter accelerates to take a sprint win while Thomas takes the overall lead

Photo: Sirotti

EF EDUCATION - EASYPOST

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GERAINT THOMAS

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PARIS - NICE

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TEAM SKY

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TOM-JELTE SLAGTER

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WILCO KELDERMAN

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12.03.2014 @ 16:43 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) got his career as a Garmin rider off to the best possible start when he won the hilly fourth stage of the Paris-Nice to set himself up for a good result in the overall standings. The Dutchman joined forces with Geraint Thomas (Sky) after the very steep Cote du Mont Brouilly and played it cool in the two-rider sprint to take the stage victory while Thomas narrowly took the leader's jersey off the shoulder of a hard-fighting John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano).

 

One year ago Tom-Jelte Slagter came of age when he won the Tour Down Under overall but since then the young Dutchman has found it difficult to make similar performances. Prior to the 2014 season, he joined Garmin-Sharp and that move seems to have been beneficial for the great talent.

 

In what is just his second race for his new team, he took what is probably the biggest win of his career when he held off Geraint Thomas in a two-rider sprint to win the first hilly stage of the 72nd edition of the Paris-Nice. Despite a hard chase of a strong group that was breathing down their necks, Slagter played it cool and allowed Thomas to do all the chase work inside the final kilometre.

 

With a few hundred metres to go, Slagter decided that it was time to strike, launching an impressive acceleration. A fatigued Thomas who was riding solely for the general classification, struggled to hold onto his wheel and had to be content with second.

 

The winning move had been made on the brutal Cote de Mont Sant Brouilly whose steep 25 percent gradients made it the perfect launchpad for attacks and was the scene of the first battle between the overall contenders in this year's race. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) launched several attacks but the Colombian failed to make a difference.

 

Instead, Slagter made his move with 1km to go when he took off on his own. Riding his own steady, incredibly high speed, Thomas rode away from everyone else in pursuit and he joined Slagter on the subsequent descent.

 

Behind, a strong chase group formed and continued to grow as more and more riders rejoined from behind. However, there was no cohesion among the pursuers, meaning that Slagter and Thomas could stay away to the finish.

 

Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) made a late bid to make it across and he narrowly held onto third, 5 seconds behind the two leaders, but was caught on the line by the group which was led home by a very strong Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE).

 

Race leader John Degenkolb had dug extremely deep on the climb to make it into the next big group and he did a lot of hard work as he tried to get back on to save his jersey. Totally exhausted, he crossed the line in a time that was 3 seconds to slow as he dropped down to second behind Thomas who is the new overall leader.

 

Thomas takes that 3-second gap into tomorrow's fifth stage which is another very hilly affair. During the 153km to Rive-de-Gier, the riders have to tackle four climbs, with a category 2 ascent summiting just 12.5km from the finish. From there, it is downhill all the way to the finish and we should be in for another spectacular finish where Thomas can expect to come under attack.

 

The first hilly stage

After three bunch sprints, it was time for the GC riders to come into action in today's 201.5km stage from Nevers to Bellegarde. The first part of the stage was rather easy but in the second part, the riders would be faced with four categorized climbs. The short but brutally steep Cote de Mont Brouilly had its top just 14.5km from the finish from where it was downhill and flat all the way to the line.

 

For the fourth day in a row, the riders started the stage under beautiful sunshine and this time there were no non-starters. As it had been expected, the start of the stage was much more animated than it has been in the past few days when they break has been allowed to go right from the gun.

 

Voeckler takes off

One of the first riders to get a significant gap was the most recent stage winner in Belleville, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) who attacked at km 6 and stayed clear for some time before being brought back 3km later. The right attack was launched 2km further up the road when Valerio Agnoli (Astana), Laurent Didier (Trek), and Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) who was the longest standing member of yesterday's break took off.

 

While the trio still battled to create a significant gap, mountouns classification leader Christophe Laborie (Bretagne) tried to bridge across but he had no success. Instead, it was Spanish champion Jesus Herrada (Movistar) who showed strength as he joined the leaders at the 17km mark.

 

The break gets a solid gap

At the 18km mark, the gap was still only 35 seconds but now the peloton gave up and accepted the composition of the break. After 24km of racing, the gap was 2.40 and from there is started to grow.

 

At the 38km mark, it had reached 4.35 and now the Giant-Shimano team of race leader John Degenkolb decided that it was time to control the situation. The Dutch team hit the front and kept the gap stable at around for 4.30 for a long time.

 

An attempt to bridge across

Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar) and the Cannondale duo of Alessandro De Marchi and Damiano Caruso briefly tried to bridge across but they quickly realized that it was mission impossible.

 

At the first intermediate sprint, Didier was first across the line ahead of Agnoli and Herrada. The escapees were now gaining a bit of ground and at the 111km mark, the gap reached a maximum of 6.20.

 

Breschel abandons

While it was announced that Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo) had abandoned the race - the Dane suffering from effect of a crash in Oman - the peloton started to accelerate and with 60km to go, they had brought the gap down to 3.15. 

 

The riders had now hit the hilly zone and on the first climb Agnoli took maximum points ahead of Quemeneur and Didier.

Behind the peloton was still riding full gas as Sky and Orica-GreenEDGE had taken up the pace-setting duties, trying to set up Thomas and Simon Gerrans respectively.

 

Sky take control

As the riders hit the second climb, the peloton briefly slowed down and allowed the gap to stay at 1.55 while Sky, Astana and Giant-Shimano formed trains on the front of the peloton. Xabier Zandio and Vasil Kiriyenka both did an awful lot of work to keep the ever-attentive Thomas near the front and the British team was the most dominant presence on the front.

 

A crash brought down a number of riders, including Ramon Sinkeldam (Giant-Shimano), Karsten Kroon (Tinkoff-Saxo), Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJ), Maxime Bouet (Ag2r), and Mitchell Docker (Orica-GreenEDGE). None of them were badly hurt though.

 

Bouhanni is dropped

As the riders battled for position for the descent, the pace went up and this caused the first riders to fall off the pace. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and Taylor Phinney (BMC) were some of the early victims.

 

The increased pace had brought the gap down to 55 seconds and it stayed around that mark while Sky with Kiriyenka and Zandio carefully led the peloton down the descent. Up ahead, Agnoli had again taken maximum points ahead of Didier and Quemeneur.

 

Agnoli scores points

On the day's third climb, Agnoli was again first, with Herrada and Didier taking the minor points. Again the peloton slowed down a bit, allowing several riders to rejoin the peloton, as Sky, Movistar, and Astana were again prominent on the front.

 

Christian Knees took control for Sky on the front and swapped turns with Kiriyenka and Zandio. The gap remained stable at around 50 seconds until the battle for position for the final climb kicked off in earnest.

 

Disaster for Chavanel

Just as this point, Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) had bad luck to suffer a mechanical that forced him to change bike. Kevyn Ista was there to support him and a little later, almost the entire team fell back to bring him back to the front. He made the junction with 24km to go.

 

While Didier led Quemenur and Herrada across the line at the final intermediate sprint, Andy Schleck (Trek) was the next rider to puncture. It was even more disastrous for Tinkoff-Saxo leader Rafal Majka when he had the same problem a few moments later and despite the best efforts of his teammates Nikolay Trusov, Marko Kump, and Nicki Sørensen to bring him back, he only rejoined the back of the peloton at the lower slopes of the climb.

 

The break is caught

The battle for position was now very intense as Sky continued to lead the peloton. As they hit the bottom, they had almost caught the break, Agnoli being the first rider to sit up.

 

Didier made a final acceleration but as Luke Rowe set the tempo for Sky, he was easily swallowed up. When Kiriyenka took over the pace-setting, riders started to fall off, with Tom Boonen (OPQS), Thor Hushovd (BMC) and Gerrans being some of the most prominent victims.

 

Ag2r take control

Ag2r now took control, first with Mikael Cherel and later with Alexis Vuillermoz, and the peloton was now crumbling. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali, Greg Van Avermaet, Francesco Gavazzi, and Slagter were all well-placed as Degenkolb started to struggle.

 

With 15km to go, Betancur made his first attack but he quickly decided to sit up and was brought back the group that still numbered around 50 riders. A little later he made another attempt, and drew clear a small group that contained Thomas, Nibali, Kelderman, Simon Spila, Zdenek Stybar, and Slagter.

 

Slagter makes his move

As Boasson Hagen and Gavazzi fell off the pace, Slagter made his counterattack. Surprisingly, Chavanel was the next rider to drop off as the chase group behind Slagter was now being led by Thomas but had been joined by more riders.

 

No one could hold Thomas' wheel and so he took off in pursuit. At the top, he was only a few seconds behind while Wilco Kelderman had been joined by Ion Izagirre to form a chase duo.

 

A fierce pursuit

Behind, a 7-8 rider group had formed while a bigger 20-rider peloton was a little further back. Degenkolb was in another 20-rider group that was next on the road.

 

Thomas and Slagter worked well together while the first chase group swallowed up Kelderman and Izagirre on the descent. More riders - including Jakob Fuglsang and Vincenzo Nibali - rejoined that group from behind.

 

Degenkolb fights hard

The gap to the two leaders grew to more than 20 seconds as there was no big cohesion in the chase group, allowing more riders to rejoin. Meanwhile, Degenkolb and his teammate Devenyns were doing their utmost as they tried to get back in contention a little further gap.

 

As the chase group almost came to a standstill, the attacks started to go off. Romain Bardet (Ag2r) was the first to try and he was quickly joined by Fuglsang. Kelderman set off in pursuit but it was all brought back together.

 

Lots of attacks

Bardet gave it another go but failed to get clear while behind, Degenkolb had now got some assistance from Lotto Belisol who were keen to get Tony Gallopin back to the front.

 

With 3km to go, the gap was still 18 seconds as the chase now had become a bit more organized, with more reinforcements have arrived from behind. Przemyslaw Niemiec did a lot of work for Rui Costa, Sylwester Szmyd for Jose Joaquin Rojas, and Bardet for Samuel Dumoulin.

 

Nibali makes his move

With 3km to go, Nibali attacked but Thomas' teammate David Lopez was quick to shut it down. The next to try was Stybar but he and a subsequent attack from Fuglang had no success.

 

With 1km to go, Kelderman made his move and as Thomas and Slagter had started to look at each other, both Kelderman and the group were getting close. Thomas made the decision to focus on the GC and kept the pace high all the way to the finish, allowing Slagter to take a comfortable sprint win.

 

Behind, Kelderman held on to take third as he was caught by the chase group just on the line. Degenkolb crossed the line 3 seconds too late and had to hand over the yellow jersey to Thomas.

 

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