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Coming around Thomas just metres from the line, Zakarin won a 3-rider sprint on the queen stage of Paris-Nice; Contador was third while second place for the Brit was enough to take the overall lead

Photo: Katusha Team

ALBERTO CONTADOR

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GERAINT THOMAS

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ILNUR ZAKARIN

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KATUSHA ALPECIN

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PARIS - NICE

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12.03.2016 @ 18:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) proved that his amazing results from the 2015 season were no fluke by taking an impressive victory in stage 6 of Paris-Nice. At the top of La Madone d’Utelle, he joined a 6-rider group and managed to respond when first Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and then Geraint Thomas (Sky) accelerated inside the final 500m before coming around the Brit to take the win. Thomas moves into the lead with a 15-second advantage over Contador.

 

In 2014, Ilnur Zakarin gave indications of his huge talent but it still came as a major surprise for most that he was able to match the best already in his first season at the WorldTour level in 2015. The Russian first showed himself in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and went on to win the Tour de Romandie overall and take a solo victory on a stage at the Giro d’Italia.

 

However, the second half of his season was not nearly at the same level and many were questioning whether he could bag up those results. Today he confirmed his huge potential by taking a marvelous victory in the queen stage of Paris-Nice.

 

Zakarin had flown under the radar in the first part of the race, with most of the attention focusing on Alberto Contador, Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte (Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE). He even worked hard for Alexander Kristoff in certain stages, with the GC seemingly being only a smaller objective. However, his performance in today’s stage proved that he is fully ready to challenge the best throughout the season as he beat all the stars in a hotly contested uphill finish on La Madone d’Utelle.

 

Tinkoff had done the damage all day and had both brought the break back and distanced Matthews and second-placed Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) by the time, the reduced peloton hit the 15.3km climb which averaged 5.3%. Sky had taken control in the final part of the stage and it was Nicolas Roche who led the 30-40-rider group onto the climb.

 

While Matthews sat up completely from his group that was 50 seconds behind, Roche sent riders out the back door before he left it to Ian Boswell to set the pace. Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) was the next big name to get dropped but he briefly managed to rejoin the group before being distanced for good.

 

With 11km to go, Ben Swift proved that he is more than just a sprinter by hitting the front, sending Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Dries Devenyns (IAM) out the back door. Meanwhile, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Contador slowly moved up in the group and it was clear that they were readying themselves for a move.

 

That was launched with 10km to go when Majka went full gas. Cotador, Thomas, Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve (Sky) and Porte joined him and gradually Romain Bardet (Ag2r), Zakarin, Arnold Jeannesson (Cofidis), Dumoulin, Ion Izagirre (Movistar), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE), Simon Spilak (Katusha), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) also regained contact. However, Majka continued to ride hard on the front and Costa, Gallopin and Spilak were briefly distanced before they rejoined the group in an easier section.

 

Majka slowed down in the easier part with 6km to go where Costa tried to anticipate the stronger riders but the Pole closed the gap immediately. Moments later, they hit the steepest part and this is where Majka really dropped the hammer.

 

With 5.5km to go, Contador made his big attack and only Henao and Thomas could follow. Porte was in lone pursuit and could watch while Thomas got dropped. Henao dropped back to assist his leader and the pair made it back to Contador with 5km to go.

 

Porte also regained contact and then Zakarin attacked out of the chase group to also make it back. In the next group, Kelderman, Jeannesson, Bardet, Dumoulin, Izagirre, Kelderman, Costa and Yates had survived and they were 15 seconds behind.

 

Henao sacrificed himself for Thomas but was unable to keep the chasers at bay. Bardet made a big surge and with 3km to go, they were back in contention.

 

Just as the junction was made, Contador went again and like before only Henao, Thomas, Porte and Zakarin could follow. The Russian tried to counter the move but they stayed together as Henao again hit the front.

 

The chasers were again 15 seconds behind and it was Izagirre and Yates who tried to bridge the gap. While the former failed, the latter made the junction with 2km to go. Bardet also gave it a try but as Dumoulin started to ride tempo, he was brought back.

 

Dumoulin did his best to get back but they failed to get closer to the leaders who were led by Henao until Porte made an attack just before the flamme rouge. Henao and Yates were briefly dropped but regained contact as the pace went down.

 

Henao went back to work but Porte quickly tried again. Zakarin, Contador and Thomas responded and Porte continued to set the pace until 500m remained. Here Contador went full gas in the steepest section but he was immediately passed by Thomas. Zakarin stayed glued to his wheel and tried to come around several times before he finally succeeded just metres from the line. Contador lost a single second in third while Porte was seven seconds behind in fourth.

 

Second place was enough for Thomas to take the overall lead and he now has an advantage of 15 seconds over Contador and 20 seconds over Zakarin. However, he still faces a very tough challenge if he wants to win the race. The short final stage around Nice covers a total of two category 3, two category 2 and two category 1 climbs on a route with little room for recovery. The top of the final climb, the famous Col d’Eze, comes 15.5km from the finish and from there it is a downhill run to the mainly flat final 2km on the Promenade d’Anglais in Nice.

 

The queen stage

After yesterday’s Mont Ventoux stage, it was time for an even harder day in the queen stage which brought the riders over 177km from Nice to the top of La Madone d’Utelle. It was a day full of ups and downs and a category 2 climb right from the beginning. Then there were another four category 2 climbs and a category 1 climb to tackle before the riders hit the bottom of the final climb. It averaged 5.7% over 15.3km but was a relatively gentle affair with only the final 300m being really steep with a gradient of 10.9%.

 

The 157 riders who reached the finished yesterday, were all present as the peloton rolled out of Nice under a blue and sunny sky. With a category 2 climb right from the start, it was no surprise that there was an impressive speed right from the start and a lot of attacks were launched in the first part. Surprisingly, Patrick Bevin (Cannondale) was in trouble on the first climb, but he managed to rejoin the field before the top. Cheng Ji (Giant-Alpecin) failed to do so and he abandoned.

 

The break gets clear

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) beat Jesus Herrada (Movistar), Kevin Reza (FDJ), Arnaud Courteille (FDJ) and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) in the first KOM sprint before 8 riders got away. The group grew to 15 riders and included Chavanel, but it was back together after 16 kilometres of racing. At the 19km mark, Chavanel tried again but he had no luck. At the same time, British sprinter Daniel McLay (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) left the race.

 

After 25km of racing, Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre), Cyril Gautier (AG2R), Niki Terpstra (Team Quick Step), Gregory Rast (Trek), Antoine Duchesne (Direct Energie), Florian Vachon (Fortuneo) and Evaldas Siskevicius (Delko Marseille Provence ) managed to get a lead of 45 seconds. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale) took off in lone pursuit while the peloton finally relaxed a little. At the 29km mark Talansky was 40 seconds behind while the peloton had lost 2.25. Seven kilometers later, Talansky made the junction.

 

De Gendt bridges the gap

The field increased the speed and reduced the distance to 1.50 but it did not prevent De Gendt from attacking. With an impressive solo performance he joined the break after 44km of racing where the bunch was still 1.40 behind. The riders covered 40.6 kilometers in the hilly terrain during the first hour, which was hard for Marcel Kittel (Team Quick Step) who was constantly dropped on the climbs before rejoining the group on the descents.

 

De Gendt beat Duchesne, Siskevicius, Grmay and Gautier in the second KOM sprint after 50 kilometres of racing where the peloton reached the summit 1.45 behind the leaders. 2.5km later Terpstra was first across the line first in the first intermediate sprint, followed by De Gendt and Duchesne. Meanwhile, Lars Boom (Astana) became the next rider to leave the race.

 

Tinkoff take control

The peloton was not interested in giving the break a big advantage and the gap had dropped to 1.25 after 71km of racing and it was 1.20 when they entered the final 100km after having covered 40.1km during the second hour. Here they hit the third climb and Kittel and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) were distanced immediately as Tinkoff upped the pace.

 

That forced the peloton escapees to react and the faster pace was costly for Siskevicius who was dropped and found himself 25 seconds behind at the 87km mark. De Gendt was doing a lot of damage and also distanced Rast at the 89km mark. At this point, Siskevicius was 1.25 behind and the peloton was at 1.50.

 

KOM points for De Gendt

De Gendt beat Duchesne, Terpstra, Vachon and Talansky in the KOM sprint before the peloton crested the summit 2.05 later. Rast regained contact on the descent but he was dropped as soon as they hit the next climb where Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) were dropped from the peloton. The Swiss was quickly brought back by the peloton which had reduced the gap to 1.15 at the 103km mark.

 

De Gendt beat Duchesne, Terpstra, Talansky, Gautier, Vachon and Grmay in the KOM sprint at the top of the climb where the gap was still 1.10. After having covered 30.6km during the third hour, they hit the descent, with Robert Kiserlovski going full gas for Tinkoff.

 

Talansky crashes

The Croatian reduced the gap to 50 seconds before he eased off. Meanwhile, Talansky crashed on the descent and unfortunately he was forced to abandon.

 

The break split up on the descent as Terpstra, Duchesne and Vachon got clear and they hit the next climb with an advantage of 40 seconds over their chasers and 1.05 over the peloton. Terpstra was dropped as soon as they started to climb while Kiserlovski left it to Yury Trofimov to set the pace for Tinkoff in the peloton.

 

Duchesne takes off

Duchesne went full gas to win the KOM sprint and also managed to distance Vachon. His gap was down to 50 seconds but impressively he increased it to 1.15 with 35km to go. Meanwhile, Terpstra was passed by De Gendt, Grmay and Gautier.

 

Trofimov brought the chasers back and sent riders out the back door. He increased the pace near the top and reduced the gap from 1.15 to 55 seconds at the top. Here Duchesne won the KOM sprint ahead of Vachon while Trofimov, Pawel Poljanski and Majka were firdt from the peloton.

 

Bonus seconds for Contador

Vachon was brought back as BMC, Sky and Tinkoff positioned themselves for the descent but Tinkoff again took over as they approached the final intermediate sprint. A smart move in a late turn allowed Contador to get a small gap. Henao managed to bridge the gap but couldn’t come around, meaning that Contador picked up two bonus seconds for second place.

 

Henao and Contador were caught by the peloton where Ian Stannard took control for Sky, 40 seconds behind Duchesne. The gap was down to 30 seconds when they hit the penultimate climb.

 

Roche upped the pace for Sky and that was too much for Matthews and Lutsenko who were both dropped with just 20km to go. Meanwhile, Duchesne did his best to get to the top in first position and he managed to do so just seconds ahead of Roche, Boswell, Swift and Thomas who were first from the peloton. He immediately sat up and it was Roche who safely guided the peloton onto the final climb while Matthews found himself in a group 50 seconds back before sitting up and leaving it to the climbers to decide the race.

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