Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) continued his dream start to the season by taking win number 2 at Paris-Nice in a dramatic bunch sprint on stage 2 of the race. The Australian had crossed the line in second behind Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) but as the Frenchman was relegated to third for irregular sprinting, it was the Australian who was given the win. Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek) was second and Matthews extended his advantage in the overall standings.
Two days ago Michael Matthews got a dream start to his season as he won the very first race of the year, the prologue at Paris-Nice. Today he proved his versatility by taking win number 2 as he came out on top in the first full bunch sprint of the race.
However, the victory was a lot more controversial than the one he took 48 hours ago as he only crossed the line in second behind Nacer Bouhanni. The pair had collided less than 50m from the line when Matthews tried to pass on the inside and it was a small miracle that none of them went down.
Bouhanni deviated slightly from his line and Matthews was clearly annoyed as he rolled across the line. However, Bouhanni was still announced as the winner and did the stage winner interview.
The commissaires were still studying the sprint though and they finally announced that Bouhanni had been relegated. With a split of 1 second occurring just behind, Bouhanni, Matthews and Niccolo Bonifazio, the Frenchman was given third place as he was relegated to the final spot in his group
The drama came at the end of a relatively calm stage where the lack of wind made it a lot less stressful. Nonetheless, the nervousness was evident when Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) and Ametx Txurruka (Orica-GreenEDGE) led the peloton across the line to start the lap of the 17km finishing circuit 35 seconds behind the trio of Evaldas Siskevicius (Delko Marseille), Delaplace (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and Matthias Brändle (IAM). Having learnt the lesson from yesterday, no one wanted to take any risks and it was a big fight between all the GC teams.
The gap stayed stable at 35 seconds until Siskevicius attacked with 15km to go. Brändle joined him but Delaplace dropped back to the peloton.
Dimension Data, BMC, Tinkoff, Movistar and Astana were all visible in the front row in the huge fight for position. As they hit the small uncategorized climb on the circuit, the efforts took their toll on the escapees whose gap melted away in just 2km and they were brought back with 12.1km to go before going straigjt out of the back door.
The same teams continued to be lined out in the front row for several kilometres, with Dimension Data being mostly prominent. Meanwhile, a Fortuneo-Vital Concept rider collided with a spectator in what looked like a very bad incident.
With 5km to go, Dimension Data took control with Nathan Haas, Tyler Farrar and protected sprinter Youcef Reguigui. Tinkoff took over with Michael Valgren before Cofidis showed their intentions as Cyril Lemoine hit the front.
IAM took the lead as they approached the 3km to go mark as Vicente Reynes led teammates Oliver Naesen and Jonas Van Genechten. Meanwhile, the two big trains of Katusha and Etixx-QuickStep were surprisingly far back.
IAM continued to set the pace until Orica-GreenEDGE took over with less than 2km to go. Daryl Impey, Magnus Cort and Matthews hit the front but were briefly passed by a Cofidis rider before the South African again took charge. Meanwhile, Katusha finally started to move up while Etixx-QuickStep were nowhere to be seen, meaning that Marcel Kittel was out of the battle.
Cort launched the lead-out just after the flamme rouge but was passed by Michael Mørkøv who tried to bring his Katusha teammates of Jacopo Guarnieri and Alexander Kristoff to the front. However, they had been lost in the chaos and instead Edward Theuns surged forward to lead the peloton through the final roundabout with 500m to go.
Bouhanni was in a great third position behind the Belgian and his teammate Christophe Laporte, with Matthews in fourth and Bonifazio in fifth. Laporte did the lead-out and then Bouhanni launched a long sprint with 200m to go. As he started to fade, Matthews tried to pass him on the inside but they collided. Hence, Bouhanni crossed the line in first, followed by Matthews and Bonifazio but ultimately it was Matthews who was given the win.
Matthews picked up 10 bonus seconds for the win and with the 1-second split in the finale, he increased his advantage over Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) to 14 seconds. He faces a much bigger test in tomorrow’s first mountain stage of the race. After a lumpy start with five category 3 climbs, the riders will go up the Mont Brouilly twice in the finale. The climb averages 7.7km over 3km and includes some very steep sections in the final kilometre and as it’s an uphill finish, it will be the scene of the first big battle between the GC contenders.
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