Bad luck hampers progress
Team Europcar gave it their all in stage seven of Paris-Nice, but try as they might the Vendée-based team missed out the day main break.
Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil-DCM won Saturday's hilly stage with a remarkable solo effort while Alexandre Pichot recovered from a crash to take 16th place.
It was a dark day for Team Europcar, who were hit by a series of crashes and bad luck. The team started by trying their best to force a break early in the 220-kilometre stage from Sisteron to Nice. But a fierce pace of 50km/h within the peloton made it impossible for Jean-René Bernaudeau's men to make an impact.
Finally, Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Estonian Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) managed to carve out a gap, soon building up a huge lead of 12 minutes over the bunch.
On the final climb of the day, De Gendt dropped Taaramae before riding alone for an hour before taking the win – Vacansoleil's third of the race following scalps for Gustav Larsson and Lieuwe Westra. Taaramae crossed the line six minutes in arrears, while John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i) led the peloton home 9:24 behind.
"We tried our best to get out in front but in the end the two strongest riders succeeded in distancing the peloton. Once they were clear, no team wanted to take up the chase because everyone is exhausted after a hard week," said directeur sportif Andy Flicklinger.
Three riders from Team Europcar hit the deck in what proved a difficult and frustrating day in south France. Alexandre Pichot crashed right at the start but managed to recover and take 16th place in the sprint at the finish.
Damien Gaudin and Davide Malacarne were less fortunate, the former hitting the deck midway through the stage while the latter coming heavily off his bike on the final descent to Nice.
"Damien re-opened his wounds from the Tour of Haut-Var but he should be all right to ride tomorrow," said Flicklinger. "Davide, on the other hand, is having difficulty holding on to the handlebars. He hurt his wrist badly and it does not look good."
On Sunday, a 9.6km mountain time trial will bring the 2012 edition of Paris-Nice to a conclusion, with Britain's Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) still leading Dutchman Westra by six seconds in the GC.
All Team Europcar's hopes lie with Thomas Voeckler: "He will give it his best shot in the time trial and try to achieve the best place possible. It's will come down to who has the freshest legs on Sunday. The 'rouleurs' might be able to pull off something special but they will have to be good climbers as well."