Gert Steegmans was too strong for the rest of the bunch when he surged
in the steep final stretch in Nevers to win the 93.5-kms first stage of Paris-Nice. The Belgian rider, helped by a strong Quick Step team, made the best of dreadful weather conditions to snatch his 16th career victory ahead of Franceâ€™s Jerome Pineau and prologue winner Thor Hushovd, who retained his yellow jersey.
The stage was shortened by half because of the storm, which made a few casualties, including Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans, who was held back by a crash and lost precious time.
First stage Amilly-Nevers 184.5 km
Start moved La Chapelotte 93.5 kms to the finish.
Start given to 160 riders at 14 :43
Weather: Stormy with gale force winds and rain.
Intermediate sprint: Villequiers, km 57
Climb: CĂ´te de Venoize, km 15
The storm raging over most of northern France on Monday forced organisers to move the start of the stage. The stage finally took off from the original feeding zone La Chapelottte. The riders finally covered 93.5 kms and tackled the first climb of this Paris-Nice, la Cote de Venoize (3rd category).
Spainâ€™s Dionisio Galparsoro (Euskaltel) was first at the top of the climb and took the first polka-dot jersey in this edition. Austriaâ€™s Bernhard Eisel was second and Spainâ€™s Haimar Zubeldia (Eusklatel) was third.
THREE IN THE LEAD
Eisel (High Road), Dutchman Niki Terpstra and Slovak Peter Velits (both Milram) broke on the descent and quickly built a significant lead â€“ 45 seconds at kilometre 25, 2 :50 at km 36 and a maximum of 4:10 at kilometre 40.
The peloton, led by Francaise des Jeux and Quick Step riders, raised the pace after the first hour, raced at 39.3 kph. The lead gradually went down.
Austaliaâ€™s Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) was involved in a crash after 50 kms but the Tour de France runner-up made it back into the peloton.
As the peloton neared the intermediate sprint in Villequiers (km 57), its lead was down to three minutes. The sprint was won by Eisel ahead of Velits and Terpstra.
The main pack split in four little groups, the first of which included race leader Thor Hushovd and other favourites like Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Luis Sacnhez (Caisse dâ€™Epargne) and Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2R). At first dropped in a second chasing bunch, Philippe Gilbert (FDJ), David Millar (Slipstream), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Frank Schleck (CSC) made it back some 15 kms before the line.
Among the riders trapped at the back were Evans and Germanyâ€™s Stefan Schumacher.
The first part of the peloton caught Eisel, Velits and Terpstra at kilometre 78.
Franceâ€™s Mickael Cherel (FDJ), Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Lilian Jegou (FDJ) all tried to attack in turn in the last five kilometres, but they were all reined in by Quick Step riders.
The strong man of the day was Steegmans, who surged 350 metres from the line and easily won ahead of Pineau and Thor Hushovd, who retained his yellow jersey.
The conditions were dreadful today...
It was pretty cold from the start. We were all prepared to take the start and they told us the start was taking place 110 kms further. We had to sit in the bus with the clothes and cream on. It was a good choice, because there was lot of headwind and crosswind and it could be dangerous. But we were lucky to have five of six guys in the lead in the finale and that put pressure on me to win, which I did.
It was the stage you were meant to win?
Yes. I thought 10 kms to take some of my clothes off, which was a good choice ; When a sprint is a little uphill, every gram can count. In Belgium weâ€™re used to cold and rain but it was really hard today. I was a little lucky, but itâ€™s mission accomplished.
One or two other stages might finish in sprints but the rest is probably too hard. The Ventoux will just be a nice leisurely ride for me.
Thor Hushovd retains the race leader’s yellow jersey with a six seconds lead over Steegmans and 12 over Kroon.
Top five placings:
1. Gert Steegmans (Bel, Quick Step)
2. Jerome Pineau (France, Bouygues Telecom)
3. Thor Hushovd (Norway, Credit Agricole)
4. Philippe Gilbert (Belgium, FdJ)
5. Karsten Kroon (Netherlands, CSC)
Steegmans surges in the last 400 metres to win the first stage of Paris-Nice.
Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) also tries to part with the bunch, but his attempt is reined in.
David Millar (Slipstream) was also involved in the crash. He chases to return into the leading bunch.