De Gendt wins as Wiggins holds lead

Thomas De Gendt won the dramatic penultimate stage of the Paris-Nice yesterday with a lead of more than six minutes over Estonia's Rein Taaramae and nine minutes over the peloton.

Bradley Wiggins retained the race leader's yellow jersey, on the eve of today's 9.6km uphill time-trial from Nice to the Col d'Eze, putting him on course to become the race's first British winner since Tom Simpson in 1967.

The 23-year-old John Degenkolb (Project 1T4i) won the bunch sprint for third in what was a strong display from the second-year professional.

At 219.5km, the seventh stage from Sisteron to Nice was the longest of the race.

De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Cofidis' Taaramae broke from the peloton in within the first 50km and stretched their advantage to almost 13 minutes.

Fifty-six kilometres from the finishing line, De Gendt outdistanced the Estonian as they neared the summit of the Col de Vence, and pulled further ahead as they began the long ride down into Nice.

De Gendt has sported the number 103 in the race, which he noted had proven lucky before.

"It's the same one I had last year when I won the first stage," he said.

The Belgian also did well in the 2011 edition of the Tour de France, coming sixth in the tough Alpe d'Huez mountain stage and fourth in the time-trial in Grenoble, feats all the more impressive because he had considered pulling out after a fall.

He will not be racing in this year's Tour, however, as he is getting married on June 30, on the grounds that the numbers six and 30 are his and his fiancee's birthdays.

The 25 year old's win was the third Belgian victory in the Paris-Nice after Tom Boonen's in Orleans and Gianni Meersman's in Rodez.

It likewise marked a trio of honours for Dutch team Vacansoleil, following Swede Gustav Larsson's victory in the time-trial at Saint-Remy-les-Chevreuse and Dutchman Lieuwe Westra's win at Mende.

The day was miserable for American Levi Leipheimer, of Omega Pharma - Quick Step, who had started the day third in the overall standings and six seconds behind race leader Wiggins but lost his podium berth.

Leipheimer fell twice, and then a third time 20km from the finish after crashing into a police motorbike which had stopped in a bend to protect another grounded rider - believed to be Australian Matt Lloyd (Lampre).

He battled to catch up the peloton, but finished almost 17min behind them, dropping to 39th in the overall standings.

The stage left Wiggins with a six-second lead on Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM), who could pull off a surprise on Sunday, having come eighth in the world time-trial championships in 2011.

Spainiard Alejandro Valverde, meanwhile, stood 18sec off the pace of Wiggins in third overall with the eighth and final stage remaining.

Aside from having Westra snapping at his heels, Wiggins will also have to steer clear of the virus that has ripped through the peloton and forced his German team-mate Christian Knees to abandon. 

Emerging Australian sprinter Leigh Howard (GreenEDGE) withdrew before the seventh stage citing an ongoing injury and will now prepare for the track world championships in Melbourne, Australia early next month.

Results from the seventh stage of Paris-Nice,  219.5 km from Sisteron - Nice

1. Thomas De Gendt (BEL/VAC) 5hr 11min 48sec, 2. Rein Taaramae (EST/COF) at 6min 18sec, 3. John Degenkolb (GER/PRO) at 9min 24sec, 4. Greg Henderson (NZL/LTB) same time, 5. Thor Hushovd (NOR/BMC) s.t., 6. Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP/MOV) s.t., 7. Romain Feillu (FRA/VAC) s.t., 8. Simon Clarke (AUS/GEC) s.t., 9. Xavier Florencio (ESP/KAT) s.t., 10. Grega Bole (SLO/LAM) s.t.

General classification after stage seven

 1. Bradley Wiggins (GBR/SKY) 27hr 53min 04sec, 2. Lieuwe Westra (NED/VAC) at 06secs, 3. Alejandro Valverde (ESP/MOV) 18, 4. Simon Spilak (SLO/KAT) 37, 5. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/BMC) 39, 6. Maxime Monfort (BEL/RSH) 46, 7. Arnold Jeannesson (FRA/FDJ) 1:06, 8. Sylvain Chavanel (FRA/OPQ) 1:16, 9. Robert Kiserlovski (CRO/AST) 1:21, 10. Angel Vicioso (ESP/KAT) 2:24.

Selected: 39. Levi Leipheimer (USA/OPQ) 7:36

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