Gert Steegmans clinched his second stage in a row at Paris-Nice on Tuesday – and came within a whisker of wrenching the lead from Thor Hushovd.

History repeated itself with a vengeance on stage two of Paris-Nice. Belgian Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) won, the weather was appalling, Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) kept the yellow jersey and the crashes shredded the peloton – all for a second day in a row.

It?s arguable, though, that the real stars of the day were two other riders: first year professional Thierry Hupond (Skil-Shimano) and race leader Hushovd.

Seemingly oblivious to the teeming rain and strong winds, after less than an hour?s racing Frenchman Hupond went on a classic lone break. His move lasted – incredibly – to within yards of the summit of the last and hardest of four climbs of the day, the Col du Fut d?Avenas, just 20 kilometres from the finish.

All in all, Hupond?s gutsy attack lasted 150 kilometres of the stage?s total of 201, in conditions that left other, older riders, cowering in the peloton. Definitely a rider to watch out for in the future.

No sooner had Hupond been reeled in – largely thanks to Quick Step?s hard work for Steegmans – than an even more formidable opponent charged off the front. There were gasps of amazement from TV commentators when they realised that the yellow-clad figure hurtling down through the dense mist on the Fut D’Avenas descent towards the finish to Belleville was none other than Hushovd in person.

Hushovd?s headlong descent initially left the chasing peloton stunned. Quick Step?s hard work on the climb had shredded the bunch, already split into three thanks to some big crashes, to just three dozen riders. On paper, the heavily built prologue winner and race leader Hushovd should have been amongst them. But he wasn?t.

On the ultra-fast descent, Hushovd even managed to put some 20 seconds between himself and the chasers. It briefly looked as if he would take the stage.

But it was not to be. Four kilometres from the finish, on the final brief section of flat, Hushovd started to flag. Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) bridged the gap, with Steegmans and Liquigas leader Michael Albasani quickly on his wheel.

Last in the string of four in the closing metres, Hushovd still looked as if he had some energy left. But in fact Steegmans proved as fast on the flat as he had done 24 hours earlier on the steep little rise at Nevers and he crossed the line a good bike length clear of his three closest chasers.

?The descent was as hard the final climb.? Steegmans said afterwards, ?thanks to Hushovd attacking and the cold and rain.

?But when I got across to Hushovd in the last few kilometres, things looked a lot better. The two best sprinters in the race were there, plus Chavanel was working to try and get as much time for the overall.?

?I don?t know why this is happening, but for some reason attacks are working out more this year. They?re certainly working out for me.?

Thanks to the time bonuses for his brace of stage wins, the burly Belgian is now just three seconds short of taking the lead from Hushovd. But the Norwegian?s combination of a first place on Sunday?s stage, third on Monday?s and second on Tuesday?s shows that he will not be giving up the yellow jersey without a struggle.

If Steegmans and Hushovd both came through another seriously difficult day weather and terrain-wise with smiles on their faces, the big loser of the day was Frank Schleck. The CSC leader was caught out by a major pile-up 80 kilometres and finished over three minutes down, all chance of taking Paris-Nice lost. Wednesday?s short, sharp mountainous stage to Saint Etienne, complete with the first category climb of the Croix du Chaubouret, will surely see more big names culled from the list of possible winners.

PARIS-NICE STAGE TWO

1 Gert Steegmans (Belgium) Quick Step 201km in 5-29-47
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole
3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis
4 Michael Albasini (Swi) Liquigas all same time
5 Phillippe Gilbert (Bel) Francaise des Jeux at 3sec
6 Matteo Tosatto (Ita) Quick Step
7 Mirco Lorenzetto (Ita) Lampre
8 Enrico Franzoi (Ita) Liquigas
9 Manuele Mori (Ita) Saunier Duval-Scott
10 Vicente Reynes (Spa) High Road
40 David Millar (GBr) Slipstream all same time

PARIS-NICE: OVERALL

1 Thor Hushovd (Norway) Credit Agricole 7-56-34
2 Gert Steegmans (Bel) Quick Step at 3sec
3 Jerome Pineau (Fra) Bouygues at 23sec
4 Karsten Kroon (Hol) CSC at st
5 Trent Lowe (Aus) Slipstream at 29sec
6 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis at 30sec
7 David Millar (GB) Slipstream at st
8 Matteo Tosatto (Ita) Quick Step at 32sec
9 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse D?Epargne at 33sec
10 Niki Terpstra (Hol) Milram at 36sec

WEDNESDAY?S STAGE

Paris-Nice tackles its first serious mountain on Wednesday?s 165 kilometre stage three from Fleurie to Saint-Etienne: the first category Croix du Chaubouret.

Sixteen kilometres long and followed by an 18 kilometre fast descent to the grimy industrial city of Saint-Etienne, the Chaubouret is by no means as tough as the Ventoux on Thursday.

But with two second cat and two third cat climbs preceding it, this short, nervous stage will almost certainly see another major sort-out of the favourites. The stage is expected to finish between 15.57 and 16.25 local time.

PARIS-NICE 2008: STAGE REPORTS
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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