Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) beat world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) to record his second straight stage victory and move into the overall lead on stage six of Paris-Nice.
Costa, still looking for his maiden win in the rainbow jersey, attacked inside the final 100 metres, but Betancur came round him after a strong team effort to take the stage win.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), the former overall leader, was given an impressive support ride by team-mate David Lopez before accelerating to take fourth, but Betancur’s time bonus saw him move into the overall lead.
Attacks and counter-attacks littered the early parts of the stage, with King of the Mountains points and time bonuses available on, and just after, the category-three Cote de Bonnieux, at 36.5 kilometres into the stage.
Tour Down Under champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) did not start the stage, having suffered from illness throughout the race, but among those who did take to the start there was no shortage of riders looking to join a break.
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) made an unsuccessful solo attempt, while Sylvain Chavanel, in the polka-dot jersey, instigated an eight-man move just short of the first climb.
Britain’s Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) was among them, but only Chavanel stayed clear as they approached the summit, with Yates, Michel Koch (Cannondale) and Albert Timmer (Giant-Shimano) in pursuit.
Having secured maximum King of the Mountains points however, Chavanel waited for the bunch – leading the way through the intermediate sprint as the race came back together.
Former race leader, John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), kicked from the bunch to claim a two-second bonus, which placed him just one second behind Thomas overall, before several more riders bid to attack the bunch.
With the peloton having raced at a frantic pace over the first 50 kilometres, however, still nothing stuck – Amael Moinard (BMC Racing) another to have tried his luck before being quickly reeled back in.
Indeed, it was only after 69 kilometres a break was finally able to go clear, with Britain’s Stephen Cummings (BMC Racing) among them.
Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE), handily-placed overall at 25 seconds back, was also in the break with Mattia Cattaneo (Lampre-Merida), Pim Ligthart (Lotto-Belisol), Giovanni Bernaudeau (Europcar) and Gregory Rast (Trek Factory Racing).
Aleksandr Kuchynski (Katusha), Adrien Petit (Cofidis), Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale) and Florian Vachon (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) were also in the group as they stretched their lead out to more than three minutes.
It had fallen to less than two minutes by the time they hit the lower ramps of the Cote des Tuilieres however, prompting Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to join a counter-attack as Ligthart crested the climb first.
The French duo latched on with just less than 50 kilometres, as stage five winner Betancur’s Ag2r-La Mondiale team led the chase at 1’10” behind.
Having stayed together as a group of 12 over the Cote du Monte-Meaulx, where Chavanel earned four more King of the Mountains points, the break held just a 35-second lead ahead of the peloton, now led by Team Sky.
It prompted Chavanel, Voeckler and Ligthart to attack off the front, with De Marchi chasing them down.
The remaining riders were caught by the bunch inside the final 31 kilometres, and the peloton soon cut down the remaining leaders’ advantage too.
Chavanel led the way up the steep climb just short of the first crossing of the finishing line, with the race split on the ascent as the Frenchman kicked to earn a small advantage.
He was caught by the counter-attack of Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida) however, and sat up to return to the bunch.
Chris Anke Sorensen (Tinkoff-Saxo) was next to attack from the bunch, which Sky continued to lead with Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) stayed tucked in just behind them.
Up the road, Serpa continued to lead the way, with Vuillermoz not interested in leading the attack as Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) countered.
Astana, led by Lieuwe Westra, took charge of the peloton to bring the leading group back together however, and the injection of pace briefly saw Thomas lose contact with his team-mates.
David Lopez recovered to support the Welshman, while at the back Chavanel finally dropped from the bunch.
Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) attacked next, joined by Stephan Denifl (IAM Cycling) and Vuillermoz again, as the counter-attacking continued apace behind them.
Vincenzo Nibali attacked, as he had done on stages four and five, just short of the final summit, while Stybar also injected some pace at the front with Lopez finally succumbing having carefully nursed Thomas up the climb.
Schleck’s leading group, which by now numbered six with Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) leading a counter-attacking group to the front, held an advantage of 14 seconds over the bunch at the top but the race was brought back together on the fast, technical descent.
With no team boasting enough riders in the leading group to take any real control however, the attacks continued and Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) and Dries Devenyns (Giant-Shimano) earned a lead.
Lopez once again recovered to pull Thomas to the front of the group, but once again Nibali attacked the bunch which resulted in the race coming back together with six kilometres remaining.
Nibali’s pace briefly split the leading group, but once again it was Lopez who brought it all together as he continued his immense support ride for Team Sky.
Romain Bardet led a four-strong Ag2r-La Mondiale team to the front with Betancur in tow, but Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) suffered an ill-timed mechanical to rule him out of contention.
Vuillermoz attacked inside the final kilometre, on the uphill finish, with Denifl attempting to chase him down and Thomas on the front of the leading group until more injections of pace saw him drop down the field.
Nibali lost contact at the back meanwhile, as Slagter launched his attack but he suffered a mechanical fault at the crucial point, while Vuillermoz crashed heavily on the final climb.
Rui Costa took advantage to launch his attack, but Betancur came from behind to sprint to his second straight win and into the yellow jersey.
Thomas finished fourth, three seconds back alongside Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) but Betancur’s time bonus ensured he moved into the overall lead.
Paris-Nice 2014: stage six – result
1) Carlos Betancur (COL) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – 5.12.11hrs
2) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida – ST
3) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +3”
4) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
5) Arthur Vichot (FRA) – FDJ.fr
6) Cyril Gautier (FRA) – Team Europcar +7”
7) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana – ST
8) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Belisol
9) Stephan Denifl (AUT) – IAM Cycling
10) Gorka Izaguirre (ESP) – Movistar +11”
1) Carlos Betancur (COL) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – 27.04.48hrs
2) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +8”
3) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida +18”
4) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +22”
5) Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP) – Movistar +24”
6) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +25”
7) Arthur Vichot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +27”
8) Jan Bakelants (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +29”
9) Cyril Gautier (FRA) – Team Europcar +31”
10) Stephan Denifl (AUT) – IAM Cycling – ST