Eleven years after winning Paris-Nice, the German Andreas Klöden proved yesterday he was still a force to be reckoned with when he won the hilly 193-kilometre fifth stage in the same race.
Klöden, 35, twice a Tour de France runner-up, has never totally fulfilled his promise and the win in the small village of Vernoux-en-Vivarais was a rare high in a up-and-down career of more than 14 seasons. Set up by RadioShack team-mate Janez Brajkovic, Klöden outsprinted Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain on the line to clinch his first major win in almost two years.
"I never thought I could beat Samuel Sanchez in a sprint, but thanks to Janez. He led the sprint very well," said the man who spent most of his early career in the shadow of compatriot Jan Ullrich before putting himself at the service of Lance Armstrong.
With most of his generation now retired, "Klödi" can have legitimate ambitions of further success during the remainder of the race, especially in Friday's 27-km individual time trial in Aix-en-Provence. The timed test could be an all-German affair as pre-race favourite Tony Martin, one of the best time trial specialists, finished fourth in the stage on the same time as his compatriot and trails him by only 10 seconds overall.
Klöden was among a group of eight riders who broke clear in the final descent from the gruelling Col de la Mure, nine kilometres from the finish line.
Among the riders dropped was the race leader at the start, Belgium's Thomas de Gendt, who crossed the line 15 minutes after the leading eight. France's Arthur Vichot crashed in a ravine as the pace was increasing in the final descent and broke his collarbone.
In the finale, Brajkovic launched the sprint with Klöden on his wheel, the German eventually surprising Sanchez and Italy's Matteo Carrara, who took third place. The same three lead the overall standings.
"For sure, we'll try to defend the yellow jersey but we'll see from day to day," Klöden added.
"Tomorrow is a hard time trial and also the last four days were very hard and nervous. I hope the legs stay like this and I can also do a good time trial."
Among the favourites in Friday's potentially decisive time trial are Britain's Bradley Wiggins, Australia's Mick Rogers and Klöden's American team-mate Levi Leipheimer, who all lie 29 seconds behind the German overall.