Leigh Howard Rounds out the Paris-Nice Stage Podium

Wed 6 Mar 2013

The second stage of Paris-Nice finished nearly one hour behind schedule due to strong headwinds between Vimory and Cérilly. When the peloton finally contested the long overdue finish, ORICA-GreenEDGE successfully launched Leigh Howard from the last wheel of the sprint train onto the stage podium.

“Leigh was satisfied to see improvements in his sprint today from yesterday,” said Sport Director Laurenzo Lapage. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Three riders jumped away from the bunch in the opening kilometres of stage two. Gatis Smukulis (Katusha), Mads Christensen (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Kris Boeckmans (Vacansoleil) gained four minutes over a peloton that averaged only 32 kilometres during the opening hour of racing. Boeckmans sat up after the first intermediate sprint and Smukulis and Christensen struggled to stay ahead of the peloton with the reduced manpower. Two hours into the tiring stage, they were back in the bunch.

Vacansoleil-DCM initiated the second notable escape group with Romain Feillu and Thomas De Gendt going clear after 64 kilometres. Maxime Bouet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) gave chase to form a leading quartet that lasted until the final hour of racing.

“The peloton faced head winds nearly the entire day,” said Lapage. “It made the race slow and caused difficulty for the breakaway.”

Crashes plagued the peloton. Lucky to stay on their bikes yesterday, ORICA-GreenEDGE fell victim to the dangerous combination of high nerves, gusty winds and wet roads today.

“Michael [Matthews] had a crash with around 75 kilometres left to race,” said Lapage. “That’s why he wasn’t where we had planned for him to be in the sprint and why he was often seen at the back of the bunch. All is okay with him; he’s only missing some skin.”

Shortly after Matthews’ crash, overnight race leader Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) fell in a sweeping left hand turn. He hit his face before sliding across the road. The peloton neutralized the race until Bouhanni’s teammates shared the information they had received over their radios. Bouhanni had abandoned and been taken to hospital.

“With Bouhanni out, the dynamic of the race changed,” noted Lapage. “The sprinters teams were forced to take control earlier than they would have otherwise. We sent [Simon] Clarke to the front to help set tempo.”

The combined efforts of ORICA-GreenEDGE, Lotto-Belisol, BMC, Blanco and Argos-Shimano brought back the breakaway just before the 45 kilometre mark. With the field fully in tact, there was a slight injection in pace as teams with an interest in the sprint began to make their way towards the finish circuit.

With the final intermediate sprint at the first passage of the finish line, the peloton entered the 18-kilometre circuit at a quick clip. Precious bonus seconds were on the offer, and Elia Viviani (Cannondale) bested Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) for seconds and points.

With the intermediate sprint over, Omega Pharma-QuickStep took control of the peloton and strung out the field. Teams jostled for position near the front.

“This last circuit was dangerous because of the wind,” noted Lapage. “Position was important, and we had to come to the front earlier today than we did yesterday because of this.”

As Michael Albasini navigated the sprint train up the right hand side of the road, Simon Gerrans drifted to the back of the bunch.

“Simon punctured with six kilometres to go,” Lapage explained. “His work was done, but he came back to the peloton because you never know what can happen in the next few days.”

No team seemed able to take control of the race in the closing kilometres as sprint train after sprint train moved to the front only to get swarmed by the next team looking to improve their position. In the final kilometre, FDJ, Argos-Shimano and Lampre-Merida kits were on prominent display at the head of the peloton.

Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida) opened the uphill sprint. He was quickly overtaken by Geoffrey Soupe (FDJ). Howard, with Viviani on his wheel, burst past them both and looked to have a clear run towards the line until Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) eased past all of the sprinters. Viviani came off Howard’s wheel as Kittel hung on for the win. Viviani managed to remain ahead of Howard, who rounded out the podium. Bonus seconds at the finish put Viviani in the yellow jersey.

“Today’s sprint was much different than yesterday’s,” noted Lapage. “Although we may have looked like we were less organised, I must say the team did a good job again. We definitely missed Michael there at the end, and Simon’s puncture came at a bad moment.”

“Leigh was happy with the team’s work,” added Lapage. “He said that in a sprint like this, the legs do the talking. We have to accept that today there are two riders that were better.”