Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) beat Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) in a two-up sprint to win stage four of Paris-Nice, as the Welshman moved into the overall lead.
Slagter and Thomas attacked on the final climb of the day, Mont Brouilly, and maintained a narrow lead through the final 14 kilometres of racing, holding off an elite chasing group.
Thomas, falling back on his team pursuit experience, pulled a huge shift to keep the two riders clear but Slagter timed his attack to perfection to win the stage.
The Welshman’s efforts did not go unrewarded however, as he moved into the overall lead courtesy of the time bonus he earned for finishing second, despite John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) performing admirably to stay in close contention with the leading group.
Post-race, he said: “It’s unbelievable. Friday before the race I was told I was going to lead, which was big. Paris-Nice is one of the biggest stage races in world behind the Tour de France and the Giro.
“To wear the jersey is great and I’m very happy.”
Earlier in the day, the attacks started almost from the off with Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), the first to try his hand.
He gained a small margin but was quickly reeled in, prompting Laurent Didier (Trek Factory Racing), Valerio Agnoli (Astana) and, fresh from his attack the previous day, Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) to make an escape bid.
After the UCI Pro Continental teams had done much of the attacking on the first three stages, the WorldTour teams seemed keen to start making their own marks and the trio earned a 20-second advantage.
Christophe Laborie (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) attempted to join them in a valiant bid to hold on to his King of the Mountains lead but he was unsuccessful and once Jesus Herrada (Movistar) joined the escapees their advantage soon grew.
After the four led the way through the first intermediate sprint – Laurent Didier taking maximum points – Jose Gutierrez (Movistar) and Cannondale duo Alessandro de Marchi and Damiano Caruso set off in pursuit.
The counter attack proved unsuccessful and the gap between the four leaders and the bunch grew to a maximum of more than six minutes, but it tumbled as they approached the undulating final 65 kilometres.
Agnoli led over the first climb, the category three Cote de la Clayette, but their lead continued to fall as Sky and Orica-GreenEDGE pulled hard on the front of the bunch.
The Astana man was again allowed to lead the way over the second climb, cutting Laborie’s King of the Mountains lead, while Vasil Kiryienka set the pace at the front of the bunch to bring the lead down to less than a minute.
A crash at the back brought down Karsten Kroon (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Benoit Vagneraud (FDJ.fr) among others, but there was little respite in the pace of Team Sky at the front.
Back at the front, Agnoli led the way once again to move into the King of the Mountains lead but their lead continued to fall.
Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) suffered an ill-timed mechanical at the back, which saw him briefly losing touch at the back, but he was brought back to the bunch by Kevyn Ista and Sebastien Hinault.
Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) suffered more misfortune as he too suffered a puncture, and GC contender Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) was another forced to come back through the cars.
The catch was made with 17 kilometres remaining as Kiryienka continued to pull a huge shift on the front of the bunch as they hit the lower ramps of the Cote du Mont Brouilly.
Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) were among the riders unable to stick with the pack, while Ag2r-La Mondiale injected some pace at the front.
Carlos Betancur attacked long for the French team, accelerating on the steepest ramps, but Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) brought the race back together behind him.
Overall leader John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) managed to stay with the reduced leading group but Betancur again upped the pace at the front, before Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) attacked and earned a small solo lead.
Thomas launched a counter-attack just behind while fellow GC contenders Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) led the chasing group.
Chavanel’s earlier chase saw him run out of steam as he lost contact at the back however, but Degenkolb and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) remained in touch not too far behind the leading riders.
Thomas and Slagter led the way on the descent, but a large chasing group – with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) among them – organised behind them.
Bardet made a counter-attacking bid, but Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) kept him at close quarters as Thomas and Slagter continued to work well together at the front.
The Welshman, hunched over his handlebar in team pursuit style, pulled a big shift at the front while team-mate David Lopez set about disrupting the chasing group.
The group including Degenkolb, with Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) among them cut the gap to the leading group while Nibali attacked from the chasers.
Lopez responded excellently to keep neutralise The Shark’s attack bid however as Thomas and Slagter maintained a marginal lead into the final two kilometres.
Fuglsang was next to try a counter-attack as the Kazakh team bid desperately to catch the two leaders, but Thomas and Slagter stayed in front under the flamme rouge as Kelderman attempted to bridge.
Slagter led the sprint out though, and Thomas was unable to respond with the young Dutchman taking his first win for Garmin-Sharp – saluting his new team as he crossed the line.
Kelderman finished third, while Michael Matthews led home the sprint for fourth place.
Degenkolb’s group crossed 18 seconds behind Slagter and Thomas, enough to stay second overall, but it means Thomas holds a three-second lead over the German in the general classification.
Paris-Nice 2014: stage four – report
1) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Garmin-Sharp – 5.00.09hrs
2) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
3) Wilco Kelderman (NED) – Belkin +5″
4) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE – ST
5) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
6) Arthur Vichot (FRA) – FDJ.fr
7) Peter Velits (SVK) – BMC Racing
8) Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP) – Movistar
9) Cyril Gautier (FRA) – Team Europcar
10) Samuel Dumoulin (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale
1) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky – 18.14.25hrs
2) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Shimano +3″
3) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Garmin-Sharp +4″
4) Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP) – Movistar +8″
5) Samuel Dumoulin (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +12″
6) Wilco Kelderman (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +15″
7) Carlos Betancur (COL) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +17″
8) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +19″
9) Cyril Gautier (FRA) – Europcar – ST
10) Arnold Jeannesson (FRA) – FDJ.fr