Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) beat Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) to the line in an uphill sprint to win stage three of Paris-Nice, with Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins maintaining his six second lead at the top of the general classification.
Michael Mørkøv (Saxo Bank), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) and Roy Curvers (Project 1t4i) formed the day’s break early in the 194km stage from Vierzon to Le Lac de Vassivière, which started without Radioshack-Nissan-Trek’s Andy Schleck, who was forced to withdraw from the race through illness.
The trio enjoyed a lead of more than five minutes but, with Team Sky at the front of the peloton to protect Wiggins, that began to tumble as the race approached the final category three climb, with Engoulvent the final escapee to falter and swept up with seven kilometres remaining.
Vaconsoleil-DCM’s Sergey Lagutin attacked the peloton on the final climb but Team Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep, working for Levi Leipheimer, second in the overall, soon pulled the Uzbek national champion back.
Movistar then moved to setup Valverde, who launched his bid for the line and held off the late challenge of Gerrans, who narrowly beat the Spaniard to the Tour Down Under title in January. Valverde earned a ten second time bonus for his victory to move up to 11th overall, 20 seconds down on Wiggins.
Wiggins said: “Full-on uphill bunch sprints like that at the end are never easy and there was a lot of jostling for position before it, but I was happy to finish in that front group. My team rode fantastically for me and controlled the race from beginning to end.
“It was very cold out there and I was struggling to keep warm this morning but thankfully the sun came out a bit this afternoon and hopefully it’ll get warmer as the week rolls on.
“We’ll try to control the race again [on stage four], but if we lose the jersey [then] we lose the jersey. It’s always really hard to defend a six-second lead, especially with the bonus seconds on offer, and I’ve always said this race is going to come down to the Col d’Eze.
“If I’m in the mix before that I will be happy and then it’s all to play for. Anything else we get before then with the jersey is a bonus.”