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The Europcar sprinter returns to his winning ways in the race where it all begun when he narrowly holds off Bouhanni and Degenkolb in a clash of the race's three sprinting giants

Photo: Sirotti

BRYAN COQUARD

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DIRECT ENERGIE

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ETOILE DE BESSÈGES

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GROUPAMA-FDJ

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JOHN DEGENKOLB

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NACER BOUHANNI

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TEAM SUNWEB

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07.02.2014 @ 16:43 Posted by Simon Knudstrup

Bryan Coquard (Europcar) has continued his love story with the Etoile de Besseges as he added another win to the two stage victories he took one year ago, when he won today's hilly third stage in a sprint finish. The Frenchman held off Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) whose team had done most of the work all day, while Sander Helven (Topsport Vlaanderen) survived the first serious climbing of the race to comfortably defend his leader's jersey.

 

One year ago Bryan Coquard got his professional career off to a flying start when the rider who had until then been mostly known for his omnium silver medal from the 2012 Olympics and his silver medal from the 2012 U23 World Championships, won two stages in the Etoile de Besseges. This year he is back in the French race and after a slow start, he has returned to his winning ways in Besseges.

 

On the third stage the riders had to deal with the first serious climbing of the race but Coquard showed good condition by comfortably staying in the peloton on all three passages of the category 1 Col de Trelys. With teammate Cyril Gautier up the road, he left it to John Degenkolb's Giant-Shimano team to do all the chase work of the initial 5-rider breakaway.

 

Things came back together with 7km to go and Giant-Shimano appeared to have everything under control when they powered under the flammer rouge with their German sprinter at the back of the train. However, Coquard was always well-positioned and when it came to the final dash to the line, Degenkolb was again denied.

 

Instead, it ended as a battle royale between two of the most promising French sprinters, with Coquard narrowly edging ahead of Nacer Bouhanni just before the line. Degenkolb had his third near-miss in the race as he could only manage 3rd.

 

Sander Helven showed that he has no intention of relinquishing his surprise lead in the race as he comfortably survived the climbing and remains the leader of the race. He now faces his sternest test so far on tomorrow's queen stage. The riders will tackle the steep Mur de Laudun twice near the finish, with the final passage coming just 15.6km from the finish and Helven can expect that his lead will come under attack on the eve of Sunday's time trial.

 

A hilly stage

The 152.6km 3rd stage sent the riders up the first serious climbs of the race. Starting and finishing in Besseges, it first consisted of three laps on a big 44.6km circuit that contained the category 1 climb Col de Trelys right at the beginning and ended with 3 laps on a 6.8km flat circuit around the city. The stage was expected to make some selection but a sprint finish was still the likely outcome.

 

Right from the start, the riders started to climb the Col de Trelys and this made for a very hard opening to the stage. FDJ and Sander Helven's Topsport Vlaanderen tried to control things on the lower slopes but it was an impossible task, with several attacks being launched on the steep slopes.

 

Several early attacks

The first riders to get a gap were Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Belisol), Blel Kadri (Ag2r) and Jeffry Romero (Colombia) and when they had a 12-second advantage, one of yesterday's escapees, Julien Fouchard (Cofidis), set off in pursuit. While the first riders - Stijn Steels (Topsport) and Peio Bilbao (Caja Rural) - stepped into the broom wagon, the attackers were brought back.

 

French champion Arthur Vichot (FDJ) was on a mission today and he hit the front hard, setting a fierce pace that sent several riders out the back door. However, he was unable to prevent Kadri from launching another attack, this time being joined by Remy Di Gregorio (La Pomme Marseille) and Albert Timmer (Giant-Shimano).

 

Things are back together at the top

Cyril Gautier (Europcar) and Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r) set off in pursuit but just before the top of the climb, the 5 attackers were all caught. Vichot was the first to crest the summit ahead of Vuillermoz, Kadri and Tobias Ludvigsson (Giant-Shimano)

 

More than 50 riders had been dropped on the climb and the riders were now eager to take it a bit easier. When Vichot, Vuillermoz, Gautier, Di Gregorio and Rodolfo Torres (Colombia) launched an attack, they were allowed some leeway and started to build up a solid advantage.

 

The gap grows

The peloton took it easy for a little while, allowing most of the riders who had been dropped, to rejoin the main group. The front quintet extended their lead to 4 minutes when the peloton decided to react.

 

The team to take the initiative was Giant-Shimano who was keen to get revenge for John Degenkolb's two near-misses on the first two days. The team stabilized the gap between 3.30 and 4.00 for most of the first two laps on the big circuit.

 

Vichot scores bonus seconds

Vichot beat Vuillermoz and Di Gregorio in the first intermediate sprint to score some important bonus seconds while Di Gregorio took maximum points ahead of Vuillermoz, Vichot, Torres and Gautier the second time up the Col de Trelys. At the second passage of the finish line, Vuillermoz took the maximum 3 bonus seconds ahead of Vichot and Di Gregorio.

 

When the peloton hit the Col de Trelys for the final time, Lotto Belisol took over the control and set a very hard pace. The plan was to make a hard race which would allow Tony Gallopin or Tosh van der Sande to take the win in a sprint from a small group.

 

The gap comes down

The pace-setting had its effect as several riders fell off the pace and never rejoined the front. At the same time, the gap started to come down and at the top of the climb, it was only 2.40.

 

Torres beat Di Gregorio, Vichot, Vuillermoz and Gautier in the sprint at the top and so Vichot took over the mountains jersey at the end of the day. Meanwhile, Degenkolb and Sonny Colbrelli had both survived the climb, prompting Giant-Shimano and Bardiani to take over the pace-setting in the flat part of the course.

 

Lotto and Giant-Shimano chase hard

Two groups of dropped riders desperately tried to get back on but their chase was in vain as it was now Lotto Belisol and Giant-Shimano who combined forces on the front.

 

With the gap down to 1.32, Torres decided that it was time to break the harmony in the front group and he launched an attack on a small hill. At the same time, Vichot punctured and it took some time for the French champion to rejoin the chase group.

 

Torres is caught

Torres stayed clear for a few kilometres and even managed to build up a 20-second gap at some point but just before the next passage of the finish line which signaled the start of the first lap on the small circuit, the five escapees were back together. At the line, their advantage was down to 1.12 as Bretagne led the peloton across, trying to prepare a win for Romain Feillu.

 

Giant-Shimano were back in control a little later and when they crossed the line to start the penultimate lap, the advantage was only 54 seconds. Lotto Belisol decided to lend a hand and the two teams managed to catch the escapees just before the start of the final lap.

 

Giant-Shimano in control

It was now clear that a bunch sprint was inevitable and for most of the final lap, it was the familiar sight of Giant-Shimano leading the main group. The Dutch team powered under the flamme rouge and appeared to have brought Degenkolb into the perfect position.

 

For the third day in a row, however, the German was denied as Coquard finally got his sprint right and narrowly held off Bouhanni to take the win. Helven finished safely in the bunch to again defend his leader's jersey.

 

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