Movistar's Alejandro Valverde held on by less than half a wheel's width to survive a late charge from Simon Gerrans of GreenEdge, the man who had narrowly beaten him to the Santos Tour Down Under title in January, to win Stage 3 of Paris-Nice on the Catgeory 3 climb to Le Lac de Vassivière this afternoon.Gianni Meersman of Lotto-Belisol finished third, while Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins rolled over safely in the group in 20th place and on the same time to retain the race leader's yellow jersey.
Valverde had started the morning 11th overall, his presence in the 21-man break that contested yesterday's finale allowing him to jump up the general classification following a fairly lacklustre performance in Sunday's opening time trial that had left him in 41st position, a full half-minute down on the leaders.
The 10-second bonus he gets for winning today's stage takes him to sixth overall and just 20 seconds down on Wiggins, with Thursday's tough finish in Mende looking tailor-made for the Spaniard.
It's the 31-year-old former world number one's third victory since returning to the sport at the start of January following a two-year ban imposed as a result of his links to Operacion Puerto. The first of those, in his debut race for Movistar, the Tour Down Under, also came at the expense of Gerrans on an uphill finish on Old Willunga Hill.
Today's scenario was different to that two-man battle back in January, however, with Valverde, whose Movistar team had moved to the front as the main bunch headed under the flamme rouge, looking set to win with relative ease after countering the attack of compatriot Luis Leon Sanchez of Rabobank, a former winner of Paris-Nice.
But Gerrans, whose Tour Down Under overall victory had come just a fortnight after he began his season with the new Australian outfit by taking the national road championship, burst from the pack with a late surge that very nearly had Valverde beaten.
Earlier in the 194km stage from Vierzon, which had begun without RadioShack-Nissan's Andy Schleck, who had withdrawn citing a stomach upset, and GreenEdge's Aidis Kruopis, a three man breakaway had managed to escape, comprising Michael Morkov of Saxo Bank, Saur-Sojasun's Jimmy Engoulvent and Roy Curvers of Project 1t4i.
At one point, that trio had a lead of nearly five minutes but as the race headed into the final 30 kilometres, the gap was tumbling with Team Sky driving the peloton. Movistar, working for Valverde who had suffered a puncture, took up the reins and the final escapee, Egoulvent, was swept up with 7 kilometres left shortly after taking the day's intermediate sprint. Team Sky's Geraint Thomas, looking to prevent any of Wiggis' rivals from getting bonus seconds, was the second man over.
With a little over 3 kilometres left on the final Category 3 climb to the finish, Vaconsoleil-DCM's Sergey Lagutin launched a solo bid for glory, but Team Sky kept a watchful eye on the Uzbek national champion, as well as on Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Levi Leipheimer and Sylvain Chavanel, two of the biggest threats to Wiggins in the overall.
Movistar then made their move to position Valverde perfectly for him to repeat the success of Spanish legend Miguel Indurain, who won his final Tour de France stage here in 1995.
After his victory, Valverde said: "I really must thank my team-mates who did a phenomenal job all day and in the finale. I’m glad to have won this because it was a great fight. Of course I think about final victory but for now, I’m just glad I won this. I was in the front group yesterday and my sensations since the start have been great. We’ll see."
Wiggins, meanwhile, reflected on the difficulty Team Sky has in defending what is a narrow lead, particularly in a race that, unlike the Tour de France, awards bonus seconds at stage finishes. “It was cold out there, a lot of guys were struggling. It’s another day down. I’m just looking to stay safe and keep the guys like Levi around me. Alejandro won today and he is getting closer too.
"The next couple of days we’re going to try and control as best as possible. But six seconds is hard to defend and there is a strong possibility that we can lose the jersey with a bonification here or there. If we can stay in touch until the Col d’Eze [the individual time trial that brongs the race to a close on Suday], we can play it cool.”
Paris-Nice Stage 3 result 1 VALVERDE Alejandro MOVISTAR TEAM 4h 36' 19" 2 GERRANS Simon GREENEDGE CYCLING TEAM All at same time 3 MEERSMAN Gianni LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 4 SANCHEZ Luis-Leon RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM 5 FLORENCIO Xavier KATUSHA TEAM 6 CAPECCHI Eros LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 7 MONFORT Maxime RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 8 HIVERT Jonathan SAUR-SOJASUN 9 GAVAZZI Francesco ASTANA PRO TEAM 10 WESTRA Lieuwe VACANSOLEIL-DCM 11 GALLAND Jeremie SAUR-SOJASUN 12 SIMON Julien SAUR-SOJASUN 13 LEVARLET Guillaume SAUR-SOJASUN 14 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM 15 KADRI Blel AG2R LA MONDIALE 16 LEIPHEIMER Levi OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP 17 VORGANOV Eduard KATUSHA TEAM 18 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD 19 URAN Rigoberto SKY PROCYCLING 20 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING Paris-Nice overall standings after Stage 3 1 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 9h 09' 51" 2 LEIPHEIMER Levi OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP + 00' 06" 3 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 11" 4 CHAVANEL Sylvain OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP + 00' 14" 5 MONFORT Maxime RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 00' 18" 6 VALVERDE Alejandro MOVISTAR TEAM + 00' 20" 7 WESTRA Lieuwe VACANSOLEIL-DCM + 00' 22" 8 ROJAS Jose Joaquin MOVISTAR TEAM + 00' 29" 9 SPILAK Simon KATUSHA TEAM + 00' 33" 10 KISERLOVSKI Robert ASTANA PRO TEAM + 00' 36"
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.