Gert Steegmans powered away in the final kilometre to take a stormlashed stage one of Paris-Nice, in which favourites Cadel Evans and Christophe Moreau lost time.

It was supposed to be the easiest stage of Paris-Nice but in fact the atrocious weather meant it has almost certainly turned out to be one of the toughest.

Shortened to 90 kilometres as a result of the weather, strong crosswinds split the peloton into three in the final hour?s racing – with dramatic consequences.

Race leader Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and British champion David Millar (Slipstream), together with last year?s runner-up and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and CSC climber Frank Schleck were all in the front group of some three dozen riders. But there were some big names missing.

Most notably out of the running were Silence-Lotto?s Cadel Evans and Agritubel?s new leader Christophe Moreau. Evans lost almost three minutes by the finish, Moreau more than six – and both of them have lost any chance of winning Paris-Nice.

Quick Step, together with Hushovd in person as well as Caisse d?Epargne?s stage race specialist Luis Leon Sanchez had been the main driving forces in the leading group, reeling in an earlier breakaway of three with no problems at all.

Keeping the pace ferociously high through heavy showers and seemingly oblivious to the gale force winds, Sanchez at least was aware that the chance to wipe out Evans from the general classification running was too good an opportunity to miss. As for Quick Step, this was a stage that they did not want to lose.

Millar himself was almost out of the running too, when he crashed four kilometres from the finish on the rainsoaked tarmac. His jersey grimy with grit from the fall, the Briton managed to weave through the following team cars to get back on just before the final kilometre.

The final dash for the line and a deceptively steep uphill rise to the finish saw Steegmans make an all-out attack with 350 metres to go.

The winner in Ghent?s stage of the Tour last year and best known as Tom Boonen?s lead-out man, the Quick Step rider managed to put a huge amount of daylight between himself and the peloton in just a few pedal strokes. This climb was probably the most similar thing to a Belgian Mur that will be seen in this year?s race – and Steegmans certainly made the most of it.

His victory and ten second bonus was not enough to take over to race leader – that still belongs to Hushovd, third on the stage. But Steegmans’ acceleration was a classy attack that deserved to be rewarded – and after winning a stage in Mallorca, he netted a far bigger prize in France.

?When we got to the stage start this morning we were laughing at all the climbers in the team bus.? Steegmans told Cycling Weekly.

?They were all nervous because of the bad weather. Now they know how I?m going to feel when we go up the Ventoux on Thursday.?

?I thought I?d attacked too early. In the last 150 metres I could hear the speaker yelling ?Hushovd, Hushovd? and thought I?d blown it.?

?But I was worried about Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) so I had to try. And it worked.?

?We always knew it was going to be dangerous today. But we worked hard in the break when we caused the split because we knew it was our best chance.?

Assuming Millar?s injuries from the crash are not too serious, the fall-out from stage one has left him in a much stronger position overall. The Briton has bounced back from his prologue defeat with a vengeance. On tomorrow?s hilly stage, it cannot be ruled out that the Scot will move even closer to the lead – and perhaps into it.

Gert Steegmans takes Monday’s stormy first stage for Quick Step. Photos by Luc Claessen/ISPA

STAGE 1 (NEVERS-BELLEVILLE)

1 Gert Steegmans (Belgium) Quick Step 93.5km in 2-21-29
2 Jerome Pineau (Fra) Bouygues at 2sec
3 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole
4 Phillipe Gilbert (Bel) Francaise de Jeux
5 Karsten Kroon (Hol) CSC all same time
6 Enrico Franzoi (Ita) Liquigas at 4sec
7 Mirco Lonrenzetto (Ita) Lampre
8 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) High Road
9 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner all same time
10 Alexander Kuschynski (Byl) Liquigas at 7sec
29 David Milar (GB) Slipstream same time

PARIS-NICE: OVERALL

1 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole 2-26-25
2 Gert Steegmans (Bel) Quick Step at 6sec
3 Jerome Pineau (Fra) Bouygues at 12sec
4 Karsten Kroon (Hol) CSC same time
5 Andrei Grivko (Ukr) High Road at 17sec
6 Trent Lowe (Aus) Slipstream at 18sec
7 David Millar (GB) Slipstream at 20sec
8 Matteo Tosatto (Ita) Quick Step at 21sec
9 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse D?Epargne at 22sec
10 Johan Van Summeren (Bel) Silence-Lotto at 24sec

TUESDAY?S STAGE

After Monday?s battle with the elements, stage two of Paris-Nice this year, a 201 kilometre slog from Nevers to Belleville, sees the race make its first serious contact with the hills.

The first section is almost all flat. In the final 50 kilometres, three third category climbs precede a second category ascent of the Fot D?Avenas. From the summit, it?s downhill almost all the way to the finish, 20 kilometres further on. The finish is expected between 1614 and 1644 local time.

The terrain plus the damage to gccaused on stage one mean breakaways will certainly form part of the day?s menu. Millar?s chances of taking revenge for his below-expectations prologue and moving into the overall lead are not low.

PARIS-NICE 2008: STAGE REPORTS
Stage one: Steegmans rides the storm
Prologue: Hushovd wins

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BLOG: PARIS-NICE
Day one