We still don’t know who is going to win Paris-Nice but we sure as hell know who has lost it. Every day more contenders have bitten the dust. After the first serious hills of the race CW looks at the winners and the losers in St Etienne.

It’s been a race of attrition so far, with the stage one crosswinds put several riders out of contention, and a few more missed the cut during stage two. Stage three continued the whittling down process. Nobody has yet won the race, but CW satisfied that the shortlist of possible winners is down to a handful of riders.

WHY DID LHOTELLERIE LEAD OUT THE SPRINT?
The young Frenchman was put in an impossible situation. While Kjell Carlstöm had the luxury of a very strong team-mate (Roman Kreuziger) in the chasing group Lhotellerie was on his own. He’s young, inexperienced, and is a French rider in an important French race, which added to the pressure.

Carlstöm manoeuvred him to the front with 3km to go, after a brief chat in which the Finnish rider checked if his rival was going for the stage win or for general classification gains.

And from there, he could patiently wait until the sprints. Lhotellerie left it far too late in the finishing straight, and when Carlstöm came around him, there was no time to respond.

WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THE CHAUBOURET?
The most aggressive climbers of the race are Sylvain Chavanel, Damiano Cunego and especially Roman Kreuziger. This trio pulled clear of the lead group up the climb, although they were brought to heel over the top.

But several contenders including Davide Rebellin, Robert Gesink, Yaroslav Popovych and Luis-Leon Sanchez, played a very intelligent waiting game. None committed themselves to the chase, saving energy and banking on it coming back together on the shallow descent to St Etienne. They were proved right, but won’t hold back on the Ventoux. Don’t be surprised if some or all of these four are close to the race lead by the end of today.

WHO’S GOING TO WIN?
It’s probably not necessary to look any further than the 15 man group that coalesced over the top of the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret to find out winner. And don’t forget that of those 15, some, like Christophe Moreau, have already lost time on previous stages.

Only seven riders have made the cut at every crucial rendezvous of the race so far – Sylvain Chavanel, Louis Leon Sanchez, Gorka Verdugo, Davide Rebellin, Yaroslav Popovych, Rinaldo Nocentini and Robert Gesink. Yes, more riders, including Karsten Kroon and Alexander Efimkin caught the lead group in St Etienne, but if they were dropped on the Croix de Chaubouret, they won’t find it any easier on the Ventoux.

Of these seven, Sanchez and Rebellin had proven Paris-Nice pedigrees, having come second and third last year. But Gesink dropped everybody except Levi Leipheimer on the hardest stage of the Tour of California a fortnight ago. On a steep uphill, the Dutchman is seriously fast – today’s climb to Mont Serein could announce him as a star of the very near future.

WHY IS SYLVAIN CHAVANEL ATTACKING SO MUCH?
The Frenchman has been the perkiest rider of the race, attacking in the finale of every stage so far.

Stage one’s attack was badly mistimed. He tried to hold off a raging lead group, full of angry Quick Step riders, on a flat exposed road by the river Loire in Nevers. It was never going to work.

Stage two’s attack was more like it, he dragged stage winner Gert Steegmans with him, and was joined by Thor Hushovd with the teams of the two best sprinters in the race no longer needing to chase, Chavanel’s break succeeded. He only gained three seconds, but considering that’s how much he leads by overall into today, that can be considered a worthwhile expenditure of energy,

And yesterday’s stage saw the Frenchman away with Cunego and Roman Kreuziger on the Croix de Chaubouret. And with two team-mates in the final break he had the confidence to order them to drive it to St Etienne.

Chavanel’s suffered a lot of criticism over the years, some of it is fair enough – he’s made two good breaks this week, but he’s made a lot of bad ones in his time. However, he’s clearly enjoying himself here. Is this a rider whose time has finally come?

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – CW’S SHORTLIST OF WINNERS
Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis
Luis-Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d?Epargne
Gorka Verdugo (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Silence-Lotto
Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r-La Mondiale
Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank

STAGE THREE WINNERS?

Kjell Carlstöm
Stayed away all day and played a patient tactical game up and down the final climb and then in the finishing sprint.

Sylvain Chavanel
He’s been a live wire all week. He may not end up winning the race but he’s been the most aggressive rider so far and the yellow jersey is a fair reward for that.

Luis-Leon Sanchez and Robert Gesink
They?ve been in every move that counts and will be favourites for the win. Sanchez is more experienced, but we thing Gesink is pure raw talent. We’re anticipating a big breakthrough from the Dutchman in today’s stage on the Ventoux.

… AND LOSERS

David Millar
Did everything right until getting dropped like a stone on the Croix de Chaubouret. He’s missed his biggest target of the spring.

Team Slipstream
Banking on a good performance here to impress race organisers ASO but have fallen short of expectations. Will now need to concentrate everything on winning a stage.

Cadel Evans
He looks as rough as ever, although now he’s going pretty slowly as well.

Clément Lhotellerie
A great performance from the young Frenchman. What a pity he allowed the ore experienced Carlström to play him like a violin in the sprint.

PARIS-NICE 2008: STAGE REPORTS
Stage three: Flying Finn takes the win
Stage two: Steegmans back on top
Stage one: Steegmans rides the storm
Prologue: Hushovd wins

RELATED LINKS
Paris-Nice photo gallery: new photos added daily
Stage one analysis
Millar goes down but isn’t out
Prologue analysis: winners and losers
Big names line up for Paris-Nice and defy UCI
Teams vote to ride Paris-Nice
Paris-Nice preview: does the route suit David Millar?

BLOG: PARIS-NICE
Days two and three
Day one

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