Gilberto Simoni attacked in the final two kilometres to win the fifth stage of the Paris-Nice ProTour race at the top of the Mount Faron here in Toulon yesterday.
Two days after the withdrawal of Lance Armstrong with a sore throat, another American, Bobby Julich, seized the overall lead.
The two-times Giro d'Italia winner Simoni, one of the best climbers in the peloton, showed his early season form in the last climb to the finish when he broke away from the leading group to score his first victory for the Lampre team. He finished ahead of the Australian hopeful Cadel Evans and France's David Moncoutie.
Only 69th at the start of the stage in Rognes, Simoni was too far adrift in the standings to grab the overall lead. The Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara, who took the leader's yellow jersey by winning the previous stage in Montelimar on Thursday, was dropped at the beginning of the final climb and overtaken in the standings by Julich.
"You have to make your own luck sometimes. It was not my best climb today," said Julich, who was third in the 1998 Tour de France.
"We'll be in my neighbourhood tomorrow as I live in Nice and if the sun returns, it will be better," added the CSC rider, who finished some 40 seconds behind Simoni.
The Kazakhstan rider Alexander Vinokourov, the victor two years ago when he won the Paris-Nice for the second time, was seen by many as the stage favourite but he too was dropped early in the climb and appears to have lost any hope of final victory.
Today's penultimate stage from La Crau to Cannes over 184km has seven climbs including a category one, the Bourigaille pass.
Elsewhere, in Torricella Sicura, Italy, the world road-racing champion Oscar Freire captured the third stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico race yesterday for his second victory in 24 hours. Freire beat France's Laurent Brochard at the finish in the central Italian town, a replay of Thursday's second-stage sprint.
The 29-year-old Spaniard of the Rabobank team, finished the 141.7 miles(228km) from Tivoli to Torricella Sicura in 5hr 52min 7sec, retaining the overall leader's yellow-and-red jersey and boosting his overall advantage with a time bonus. Freire, the defending champion of the Milan-to-San Remo classic on 19 March, surprisingly rallied on the final uphill section.
"I nearly fell one kilometre from the finish and I lost several positions. Luckily I had time to recover," Freire said. "I feel very good. I'm in good form and everything comes easy to me. Of course I hope to win the San Remo but the opposition will be tough," he added.
He named Italy's leading sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, winner of the opening stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and eighth yesterday, as his closest challenger along with the World Cup champion Paolo Bettini and Belgium's Tom Boonen.
The seven-stage Tirreno-Adriatico, which is the first Italian race of the ProTour series, ends in San Benedetto del Tronto on Tuesday, crossing from the Thyrrenian to the Adriatic coast.