Jarlinson Pantano and Alberto Contador seized control on the final climb of stage seven in Paris-Nice and blew the race apart, resulting in second place for Contador and a reshuffling in the general classification.
Contador moved into third overall, while race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and second place Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) plummeted from the top three.
Sergio Henao (Sky) finished in fourth place, 11 seconds after Contador, giving him the leader's jersey with one stage remaining. Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), who fought his way back, shot around Henao at the finish to grab third place on the stage and move into second place overall by one second.
"Well to put it simply today's stage was much better than yesterday's," Contador said, happy about his sensations today. "On the last climb, we had a good rhythm - a hard tempo. Pantano did an extraordinary job for me! He made the selection of the group and he broke up everything."
While a breakaway animated at the head of the race, on the final climb all eyes were on the GC battle forming behind. Sky set the early pace with Contador and Pantano sitting around tenth and eleventh wheels. As the kilometers ticked away on the long 16-kilometer climb, it was a matter of time before the breakaway was caught.
At 12 kilometers to go Pantano surged to the front with Contador and set a brutal pace, creating the first serious selection. Eventually, Pantano eased off the accelerator, allowing Sky to take up the pace-setting again by the damage was huge: only 14 men remained. Pantano tucked in behind, gathered his breath for a few kilometers, only to burst to the front, six kilometers from the end and immediately cut the lead group in half.
Six riders tagged behind Pantano as he pressed full speed ahead, giving the ultimate sacrifice for his leader. At four and a half to go, he blew. Pantano nearly fell over with the effort, but the result was textbook: only the six strongest remained.
The tactical game began, with Richie Porte (BMC) putting in the first digs. On his third acceleration with three kilometers remaining Porte finally opened a gap while Contador eyed Henao. Contador hesitated, then finally set off in pursuit with the Sky rider on his wheel.
"I doubted a little if I should go for the stage victory or think on the GC, and Richie took advantage of that hesitation and attacked," explained Contador.
There was no catching the Australian who crossed the line and took a well-earned win, as Contador attacked in the final 1500 meters, dropped Henao, and finish 21 seconds later.
"No longer could we catch Porte so I analyzed the situation to see what I could do, and I decided to try to put some distance between me and the other people on GC, so then I went after Richie with Henao," he continued.
"In the end, it went well. Dan Martin was still there, and it's a shame I didn't finish in the lead, but I am happy because the sensations have been better than those of yesterday and well, tomorrow we have another day. It's a pity that is not an uphill finish, but let's see what happens."
All photos ©Bettiniphoto