Paris-Nice stage 1: De Gendt wins cat-and-mouse finish

Stage 1: Houdan to Houdan, 154.5km

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then the fox successfully eludes the hounds. It is rarer still for a breakaway to survive when the peloton has had a clear sniff of them for the last 7km. But survive they did – just – as Vacansoleil‘s Thomas de Gendt claimed a thrilling victory on the opening stage of Paris-Nice.

Although the 2011 season kicked off several weeks ago, to many cycling fans the ‘Race to the Sun’ is the real start of the year. The first major stage race on the calendar marks the transition point between the smaller early season races in exotic climes like Australia, Malaysia, Qatar and Oman and the start of the European schedule and the spring Classics. This is underlined by a route which starts in a traditionally cold Paris and wends its way south to the warmth of the Mediterranean coast. And it is generally the first gathering for many of the big names who will go on to contest the year’s three major Grand Tours in Italy, France and Spain.

This year’s field includes previous winners Luis León Sánchez (2009), Alexandre Vinokourov (2002 and 2003) and Andreas Klöden (2000), as well as prominent names such as Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), Ryder Hesjedal (Rabobank) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), all of whom are capable of challenging for the podium at any of the Grand Tours.

As usual, this year’s route contains a number of challenging climbs without featuring the kind of killer ascents which are the domain of the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. However, in a change to recent tradition, the race kicked off with a standard road stage rather than the traditional prologue – instead, stage six is a medium-length time trial – with the run to Vernoux-en-Vivarais the previous day likely to be the most explosive mountain stage.

The mouse eludes the cat

Early on, a two-man break of Europcar‘s Damien Gaudin and Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre disappeared up the road, establishing an eight-minute advantage as the peloton slowly stretched its legs. However, once the pack had worked up an appetite for the hunt, it hunted down its prey ruthlessly, with the final two minutes of Gaudin and Izagirre’s lead vanishing in the space of ten kilometres. The catch was complete with just under 40km remaining – surprisingly early, and perhaps evidence of a certain twitchiness amongst the teams at this early stage of the season.

Almost immediately, a second three-man break leapt clear, featuring de Gendt, FDJ‘s Jérémy Roy (a stage winner in this race in 2009) and, perhaps most crucially, Leopard-Trek’s Jens Voigt. Despite his 39 years, everyone’s favourite super-domestique retains a powerful diesel engine and a willingness to bear enormous levels of pain for the cause. He is the perfect ally to have in a breakaway because he will give everything, while being unlikely to threaten in the final sprint. And, despite his advancing years, he has a fine recent record at Paris-Nice, finishing sixth overall in each of the last two years.

De Gendt claimed his first win for Vacansoleil, and the biggest of his career

The trio’s lead was never allowed to extend beyond than 55 seconds, however, as the peloton – aware of Voigt’s capabilities – worked hard to keep them in check, as evidenced by a clean split in the pack at one stage. For a long time the gap was maintained at around 35 seconds, helped by some winding and undulating terrain. However, as the roads straightened and widened on the run in to the finish in Houdan, it had fallen to just 20 seconds at the 7km mark, and the break was firmly in the sights of the peloton. The escape appeared doomed, but the three riders never wavered in their commitment, and as the bunch failed to organise themselves properly behind them, they misjudged the finish. With a now desperate peloton bearing down upon them, de Gendt kicked decisively with around 200 metres to go, leaving Roy trailing in his wake and winning comfortably as the sprinters swallowed up the spent Voigt within sight of the line.

It was a fine and dramatic end to an enthralling opening stage, which genuinely had viewers (or at least this one) on the edge of their seats as the cat-and-mouse pursuit veered first one way and then the other. The 2011 season really has kicked off now.

De Gendt’s victory was the 24-year old’s first in a major race. He admitted that he is bound to lose the lead once the race starts heading uphill, but hoped that it would serve as a platform for further races successes this season:

Tomorrow [Monday] it is possible that I can retain the lead because it’s a flat course. But in the first real climbs on Thursday I will surely lose the overall lead.

Have I already made this a successful season? There are still around 80 days of racing, I hope I will win something else!

Monday’s stage is a pancake-flat 199km charge from Montfort l’Amaury to Amilly. After miscalculating today, the sprinters’ teams will be determined not to miss out again, so look for the likes of Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-Highroad to ride aggressively in the closing kilometres to set up the finish for Heinrich Haussler and Matt Goss.

Stage 1 result:

1. Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4:05:06

2. Jérémy Roy (FDJ) same time

3. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

4. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Greg Henderson (Sky) s/t

General classification:

1. Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4:04:53

2. Jérémy Roy (FDJ) +0:06

3. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo)+0:09

4. Damien Gaudin (Europcar) +0:10

5. Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) +0:11

Daily live coverage and highlights of Paris-Nice are being broadcast by British Eurosport.

Links: Paris-Nice official website,


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

13 Responses to Paris-Nice stage 1: De Gendt wins cat-and-mouse finish

  1. always great to see a breakaway win the day !

    • Tim says:

      Indeed. I think a lot of breaks would have half given up when they realised the peloton were within 20 seconds at 7km. But then Jens doesn’t have “giving up” in his vocabulary, does he? 🙂

  2. Sheree says:


    You weren’t the only one on the edge of your seat. I was too. I do so love watching breakaways succeed and, even better, one of them capturing his (or her) first big win.

    • Tim says:

      It was a great finish, with the result in doubt all the way to the line. Apparently de Gendt was close to winning a stage at the Tour Down Under – although I can’t for the life of me remember which – and credits his success to the 4kg he lost by stopping eating sausages! Sounds like he has just the right level of madness for a pro cyclist …

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