Rinaldo Nocentini of Ag2r-La Mondiale took the opening stage of the Tour du Haut Var after attacking in the closing kilometre on the brutal ascent to the fortress town of Grimaud.
The in-form Italian, who took second place in last week’s Tour of the Mediterranean, now holds a two second lead over Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) going into Sunday’s 200km stage finishing in Montauroux.
Best placed British finisher was Chris Froome in 22nd spot. Sky team-mate Michael Barry put in some massive efforts in the closing stages to repeatedly bring back solo attacks, but was powerless to prevent Nocentini slipping away as the road turned sharply upwards.
Clear blue skies and gusting winds greeted the peloton at the start in La Croix Valmer, stark contrast to the freezing and wet conditions of last week’s five-day race in Southern France.
KENNAUGH MAKES THE BREAK
One of three Brits in the eight-man Sky line-up, GB under-23 academy graduate Peter Kennaugh, featured in the break of the day when a dozen riders moved clear on the 3rd category drag into La Garde Freinet. Tour of the Med winner Alejandro Valverde withdrew from Haut Var in advance of the start, but replacement Christophe Moreau stepped into the Spaniard’s shoes as Caisse d’Epargne team leader and joined the break.
But the lead hovered at around 30 seconds and once the breakaway twelve had crested the Col du Revest after 107km without stretching their advantage, it was only a matter of time before they were reeled in.
Sky sports director at Haut Var, Marcus Ljunngqvist, said: “It was planned to have him [Kennaugh] up there from the start. They got caught when they came back down to the sea, so he spent pretty much the whole day out there.
“It was a hard day for the guys. They did a good job pulling back the breaks at the end for the final. It is another day tomorrow and we will give it a go again.”
The other British squad at Haut Var, Endura, had a day to forget – or remember, perhaps – with crashes and punctures wiping out half the eight-man squad. Scott Thwaites crashed in the feed zone, Ian Wilkinson crashed on a descent, eventually finishing 14 minutes down, while New Zealand road champion Jack Bauer also hit the deck on a descent and spent the night in hospital with concussion. Evan Oliphant was unfortunate to puncture with 30km to go and lost touch with the bunch.
Rob Partridge and Alexandre Blain fared better, however, finishing with the bunch. “My legs cramped on that last climb,” said Partridge, who lost 35 seconds to the winner over the space of a couple of kilometres, which should give some indication of the severity of the climb.
Sunday’s 200km stage runs from Draguignan to Montauroux and features another (and on paper) more brutal finish. The riders are poring over the race profile as we write…
Tour of Haut Var, stage one (La Croix Valmer-Grimaud) 167.5km
1. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r-La Mondialle in 3-58-53
2. Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) Cofidis at 2secs
3. Bert de Waele (Bel) Landbouwkrediet at same time
4. Christophe le Mevel (Fra) FDJ at 4secs
5. Mathieu Drujon (Fra) Caisse d-Epargne at 5secs
6. Jeremie Galland (Fra) Saur-Sojasun at 6secs
7. Steven Tronet (Fra) Equipe Roubaix at same time
8. Michel Kreder (Ned) Garmin at 7secs
9. Jonas Aaen Jorgensen (Den) Saxo Bank at same time
10. Julien El Fares (Fra) Cofidis at 8 secs
22. Chris Froome (GB) Sky at 13secs
84. Ben Swift (GB) Sky at 47secs
99. Peter Kennaugh (GB) Sky at 2-14
111. Evan Oliphant (GB) Endura at 14-38
121. Ian Wilkinson (GB) Endura at 14-40
135. Scott Thwaites (GB) Endura at 18-10
Sky and Endura head for Haut Var
Haut Var: blue skies and vineyards
Yellow jersey for Rinaldo Nocentini
Kennaugh drives the break
Evan Oliphant: puncture victim