The 63rd edition of Paris-Nice stage one was always going to be for the sprinters. Indeed, stage favourite Tom Boonen did win the final sprint. However it was not the mass bunch sprint expected, but rather a man against man dash for the line with just 22 riders left in contention.
Another cold day in France, along dead straight, flat roads surrounded by bare trees, it was 45 kilometres before the first real attack of the day. Winner of l'Etoile de Bessèges, Freddy Bichot (Française des Jeux), made the first move and when he was caught Fabien Sanchez (Française des Jeux) and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Liberty Seguros-Würth) made their move which proved to be break of the day.
The French trackman Sanchez and the experienced Spaniard Galdeano, worked well together as they rode through the unending woodlands and they built a maximum lead of 7’45’’ by the half way stage.
Behind them the peloton gradually warmed up, with Team CSC starting to pick the pace up for race leader Jens Voigt. Quickstep, looking for a stage win for Tom Boonen and Liquigas, hoping that Brazilian Luciano Pagliarini could take the day, also worked hard. Meanwhile, as the stage progressed the orange shirts of Rabobank started to move to the front, hoping to use the bonification sprint seconds to move Erik Dekker into the leader's Maillot Jaune. The bonus seconds became all important; Dekker had started in 3rd spot 3 seconds back. The two intermediate sprints gave 3, 2 and 1 seconds, the finish 10, 6 and 4 seconds. Erik Dekker fought hard for the seconds. He reduced his deficit by 2 seconds after the sprint at Neuville-au-Bois (km 42) and then made another big effort at the final intermediate at Chabris (km 174).
After 130 kilometres of effort Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Fabien Sanchez were finally caught just after the final intermediate sprint in Chabris, with just 12 kilometres to race. Dekker took the third spot and was level on time with Voigt. However, the hundredths of seconds recorded in the prologue are now counted and Dekker was virtual yellow.
With the roads gradually narrowing Fassa Bortolo took up the pace. The peloton started to string out and as riders fought for position there was an almost inevitable touch of wheels.
With 8 kilomètres to go, Fassa driving hard at the front, a fall saw a big tangle in the road, allowing the twenty of so riders at the front the chance to escape. Behind, panic ensued as riders scrambled over fallen men, machines and ditches to rejoin the race.
Fassa continued to drive hard for the leading group which contained, amongst others, Voigt, Dekker, Cancellara, Gilbert, Julich, Kirchen, Merckx, Valverde and Voeckler. The Bouygues Télécom rider in the French colours was the first to strike for home attacking under the flamme rouge. And the twenty men struck for home. The race had a northern classic atmosphere at the finish, and it was no surprise to see Tom Boonen (Quick Step), a specialist in “arrivées houleuses” (stormy finishes) cross the line first.
However the CSC team, which still dominates the overall positions, were not too dismayed by the loss of the jersey to the Rabobank man.
”It worked out really well for us today. We were able to save our strength, as there were other teams who also had an interest in keeping the peloton together. Our riders were positioned exactly right as we hit the narrow roads, so we managed to keep them in the lead group after the crash. A lot of the favorites lost time today, but we really benefited from being so well organized. We owe Rolf Sørensen a big thanks, because he was kind enough to warn us about the narrow roads at the last stretch,” said Bjarne Riis after the stage.
”Dekker took some bonus seconds along the way and as a result now holds the leader's jersey. It may sound strange, but that is actually an advantage for us. Jens didn't lose any time, as many of the other favorites did, and now it's up to Rabobank to lead the way,” added Riis.
Team CSC now has five riders in the top 12 overall; Voigt, Vladimir Gusev, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Bobby Julich and Fränk Schleck, whereas several of the main contenders lost valuable time due to the crash, among them Alexandre Vinokourov, Davide Rebellin, Jörg Jaksche and Floyd Landis, who each lost 41 seconds to the first group.
Apart from Erik Dekker and the 5 CSC men other teams who have survived the stage and sill in contention for overall are: Fassa Bortolo (Fabian Cancellara at 02" and Kim Kirchen at 11” Flecha at 19’’) Française des Jeux (Gilbert Philippe at 07"), Bouygues Télécom (Thomas Voeckler at 07"), Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne (Vicente Reynes at 09" and Alejandro Valverde at 11’’) , Saunier Duval (Constantino Zaballa at 10"), Fransisco Ventoso at 14’’) and Davitamon Lotto (Axel Merckx at 16’’).
The rest of the contenders are over 40 seconds back, so unless there is a another major upset the winner will come from one of these riders and teams.
With Gilbert, Valverde, Cancellara, Ventoso, Reynes, Gusev and Boonen all riding high in the young rider competition as well as the overall, maybe we are seeing the end of an era and the dawn of a new cycling age?
Full Results in our live report - see link below.