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The young French sprinter emerges as the strongest in the uphill sprint and holds off Degenkolb in a dramatic finale that saw the early break being caught very close to the finish

Photo: Sirotti

BRYAN COQUARD

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DIRECT ENERGIE

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ETOILE DE BESSÈGES

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JOHN DEGENKOLB

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TONY GALLOPIN

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08.02.2014 @ 17:23 Posted by Asser H. Pelle

For the second year in a row, Bryan Coquard (Europcar) has taken two stage wins in the Etoile de Besseges after he doubled up on yesterday's victory in today's queen stage. Having survived the steep Mur de Laudun twice, he held off John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto Belisol) in the uphill sprint that came at the end of a very dramatic finish while Sander Helven (Topsport Vlaanderen) again managed to defend his lead with just one stage more to go.

 

Bryan Coquard continued his love story with the Etoile de Besseges, the race that launched his career one year ago when he took two stage wins in his first race as a professional. After winning yesterday's stage to Besseges, he doubled his tally in today's queen stage after again holding off John Degenkolb in a sprint finish.

 

With two late passages of the steep Mur de Laudun, however, it was never a given thing that the stage would be decided in a sprint. In fact, it all came down to a very dramatic finish before the fast finishers got their chance to show their speed.

 

The strong trio of Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r), Romain Sicard (Europcar) and Clement Koretzky (Bretagne) proved to be very difficult to catch. For the entire stage, they were involved in a fierce battle with the peloton which never took much of a breather and always kept the breakaway within 3 minutes.

 

After getting rid of their 5 original companions, the trio refused to give up and with 3km to go, they were still 34 seconds ahead of the peloton. Behind, however, FDJ and the Topsport Vlaanderen team of race leader Sander Helven chased hard and it ended up in a nail-biting finale.

 

In the end, the peloton had the upper hand and they swallowed up the break inside the final 2km of the stage. With Sicard back in the fold, Europcar changed tactics and decided to play the Coquard card, setting up their fast finisher for another sprint win. In another close sprint, the Frenchman held off Degenkolb and Tony Gallopin to take his 4th ever win in the race.

 

Helven paid back the hard work of his team by keeping up with the favourites in the finale and so defended his leader's jersey. The surprise winner of stage 1 now only faces one more challenge before being crowned winner of the race.

 

However, it will be no easy task to defend the lead all the way to the finish as the race finishes with a 10.7km time trial in Ales. Most of the stage is uphill with gradients of up to 16%, meaning that all is still to play for in the French race.

 

The queen stage

The fourth stage was the final road stage of the race and also the race's queen stage. With a length of 156.3km, it started in Goudargues and travelled along mostly flat roads to the finish in Laudun where the riders did two laps on a hard 15km circuit that started off with the short, steep category 2 climb Mur de Laudun.

 

At the start, there was a sense of nervousness in the peloton as nobody really knew what to expect. Would the final climb be too hard for the sprinters or would the strongest of the fast finishers still be in with a chance?

 

A strong breakaway

In the past few days, it had taken some time for the early break to be established but today the decisive move was created right from the beginning. It wasn't due to a lazy mood from the peloton though but a result of an extremely strong break that got clear as soon as the flag had dropped.

 

Branislau Samoilau (CCC Polsat), Sean De Bie (Lotto Belisol), Romain Sicard (Europcar), Yauheni Hutarovitch (AG2R La Mondiale), Chad Haga (Giant Shimano), Clement Koretzky (Bretagne Séché), Rudy Barbier (Roubaix Lille Métropôle) and Thomas Rostollan (La Pomme Marseille 13) opened up a gap of 45 seconds already after 5km of racing but after the initial lull, the peloton realized that it was not content with the situation. Igor Frolov (Itera Katusha) had set off in pursuit but when the main group started to get going, he was quickly swallowed up by the peloton.

 

Cofidis leads the chase

The team that had missed out and was unhappy with the situation, was Cofidis who hadn't enjoyed much success in the race so far. The French team set a hard tempo that kicked off a long battle between the two groups in the light rain that was falling in France.

 

For a long time, Cofidis kept the gap between 0.30 and 1.00 but had difficulty closing the final bit. After 30km, however, it appeared as though the main group had the upper hand when the advantage suddenly fell below the 20-second mark.

 

The break splits up

The pace was too much for Haga and Barbier who fell off and were swallowed up by the peloton. That was when an incident completely turned around the situation.

 

Cofidis sprinter Stephane Poulhies who is well-suited to the kind of uphill sprint that was expected at the end of the stage had a puncture which forced the team to slow down to wait for their captain. This allowed the gap to get back up to 0.55 before Cofidis again could take up the chase.

 

Cofidis throw in the towel

The standoff continued for a little while but when the gap passed the 1-minute mark, Cofidis threw in the towel after 40km of racing. They stepped off the gas which allowed the gap to come up to 2.43.

 

Colombia had done nothing to hide that they had targeted the queen stage of the race, and the South Americans decided to take up the chase work. Slowly but surely they brought back the advantage to 1.30 when 90km still remained.

 

Koretzky shows his GC intentions

Meanwhile, Koretzky who had started the stage in 10th overall, had shown his intentions to go for the GC. He beat De Bie and Hutarovich in both intermediate sprints to pick 6 precious bonus seconds and so move closer to Helven's overall lead.

 

While it was announced that one of the overall favourites, Maxime Bouet (Ag2r), had abandoned the race, the riders also contested the first mountain sprint of the day. Koretzky who had already been on the attack on stage 2, beat Rostollan and De Bie to reduce his deficit to leader Arthur Vichot (FDJ) to just 6 points.

 

Colombia lead the chase

Colombia was still chasing hard and for a long time, they kept the gap between 1.30 and 2.00, with their time deficit yo-yoing up and down. At one point, they appeared to lose out a bit when the advantage reached 2.15 but the South American accelerated sufficiently to again stabilize the gap just below the 2-minute mark.

 

Cofidis still hadn't given up and when they neared the final circuit, the team again took the initiative to chase. They brought the gap down to 1.10 when they were 10km away from the first passage of the line and were now joined by Helven's Topsport Vlaanderen team.

 

Sicard attacks

When the riders crossed the line for the first time to start the first ascent of the Mur de Laudun, Sicard launched an attack that saw him build up a 9-second gap but he was quickly reeled in by his fellow escapees. The acceleration had seen the gap come back up to almost a minute but after the top, they again started to lose ground.

 

The final time up the climb, Sicard an Koretzky accelerated and crested the summit with Hutarovich in pursuit. Rostollan was a little further back while Samoilau and De Bie were caught by the peloton.

 

Bouhanni struggles

Rostollan was swallowed up too while Hutarovich managed to rejoin the leaders which were now 20 seconds ahead of the peloton. Stage 2 winner Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) had been dropped on the climb but when he managed to rejoin the peloton, his FDJ team started to chase.

 

They got assistance from Topsport Vlaanderen and the gap yo-yoed up and down between the 10- and 20-second marks as they were now inside the final 10km of the race. Stephane Rossetto (BigMat) and Rudy Kowalski (Roubaix) set off in pursuit as the peloton started to lose ground.

 

A dramatic finish

With 3km to go, the gap had grown to 34 seconds, with the chasers being 12 seconds behind. There was still an uphill finish to negotiate though and when the leaders started to play cat-and-mouse, their chances were destroyed.

 

The peloton powered ahead and swallowed up all escapees inside the final 2km of the stage. With Sicard back in the peloton, Europcar took control and in a crash-marred finish they delivered Coquard perfectly to the line, with the young Frenchman doubling his stage win tally on a dramatic day that allowed Helven to defend his lead.

 

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