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Floyd Landis took a huge step towards keeping the Paris-Nice title in American hands when he fought out a two-up sprint with Lampre Patxi Vila at the end of stage three in St Etienne this afternoon. Although Landis lost out to the Basque for the stage win, the pair's advantage of more than a minute on the riders chasing behind was more than enough to enable the Phonak rider to take Tom Boonen's leader's jersey.
On another cold and drizzly day, a far cry from the conditions Landis experienced on his way to victory in the recent Tour of California, there was little chance for the bunch to warm up before the first attacks began on a stage featuring six categorised climbs. Landis was involved in the first skirmish, before CSC's Jens Voigt and 11 others including Liberty's Allan Davis went clear.
Unlike the previous two days, this break was given little leeway by the bunch, which kept up a persistent pursuit. This partly accounted for a number of early abandons of riders carrying injuries and affected by cold-induced illnesses. Michael Blaudzun (Team CSC), Nicola Loda (Liquigas), David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval), Robert Hunter (Phonak), Graeme Brown (Rabobank), Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile), Marius Sabaliauskas (Lampre), Brad McGee (Francaise des Jeux), Anthony Charteau (Credit Agricole), Mirco Lorenzetto (Milram) and Manuel Calvente (Agritubel) all quit as the race bounced south.
What had by then become a break of just eight riders was reeled in by 13 more on the Col de l'Aubepin (111.5km), three climbs from home. This group stayed away up the fifth climb, where Johan Vansummeren (Davitamon Lotto) and Jos Alberto Martinez (Agritubel) went clear. Vansummeren took the subsequent sprint in St Chamond honouring Andrei Kivilev, who was fatally injured in a crash there in the 2003 edition of Paris-Nice.
The decisive moves came on the 10km-long climb of the Cote de la Croix de Chaubouret, where David Moncouti behind Martinez as Vansummeren lost ground and was joined by Landis, Frank Schleck (CSC), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), Antonio Colom (Caisse d'Epargne) and Vila. Martinez was quickly caught, and two kilometres from the summit Landis and Vila broke clear on their own.
Just 30 seconds ahead as Landis led over the top of the Chaubouret, the pair increased their advantage as they dropped down into St Etienne, where Sanchez led in Schleck and Colom 1-16 down on the first two riders, who are separated by just nine seconds overall but have a decent gap of more than a minute on Sanchez back in third place.
"I knew I had good legs after my victory in the Tour of California but to take the jersey so early in the race comes as a bit of a surprise," Landis admitted. "I will do my utmost to keep the jersey now for it is very important for the team and the sponsor."
For Vila this was a first win in his fourth season with Lampre. "I'm super happy to win here in St Etienne because it's my fifth Paris-Nice and it's a town I like very much," he said. "I had been waiting for a win like this for a long time. I have hopes of final victory but it will be hard to topple Floyd. I am looking forward to the two big stages in the south and especially the one to Cannes which looks especially hard."
Tomorrow's stage to Rasteau follows the long Col de la Rpublique climb out of St Etienne but is more straightforward thereafter with just a small third-cat climb 10km from the finish, which stands in shadow on Mont Ventoux.
Stage 3, Julienas-Saint Etienne
1 Patxi Vila (Spa) Lampre-Fondital 168.5km in 4.23.28 (38.37kph)
2 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak
3 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 1.16
4 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
5 Antonio Colom (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
6 Stefan Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner 1.25
7 Jos Luis Rubiera (Spa) Discovery Channel 1.26
8 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel
9 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Liberty Seguros
10 Pietro Caucchioli (Ita) Crdit Agricole
11 Jos Azevedo (Por) Discovery Channel
12 Chris Horner (USA) Davitamon-Lotto
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems 14.46.28
2 Vila 0.09
3 Samuel Sanchez 1.13
4 Colom 1.23
6 Azevedo 1.35
7 Zubeldia 1.37
8 Caucchioli 1.39
10 Rubiera 1.40
11 Horner 1.43
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