Paris-Nice: Alejandro Valverde edges Simon Gerrans

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Spaniard Alejandro Valverde again proved he was half a wheel and who-know-more-mentally better than Australia’s Simon Gerrans by holding off his GreenEDGE rival in a hot finale of stage three of Paris-Nice earlier this week.

The result was an exact copy of the pair’s duel on Old Willunga Hill in January’s Tour Down Under, where Movistar’s Valverde – nicknamed ‘The Green Bullet’ – tore down the outside of the final bend to take a slender win, his first since returning from suspension.

Although boasting the same outcome on paper, Tuesday’s uphill sprint at Lac de Vassiviere was very different from the pair’s previous antipodean tete-a-tete.

On Old Willinga Hill, it was Gerrans who opened up the sprint on the left-hand side of the road, with Valverde sweeping through on the right to secure the victory.

In France, it was Gerrans who had to come from way back after making a bit of a hash of his positioning on the final ascent. As Valverde tired, the Australian powered up on the right-hand side of the road – only to be outdone by virtue of the Spaniard’s superior stretch.

One revered European cycling blogger – the Inner Ring (www.inrng.com) – wrote a whole entry about how the Spaniard’s thrusting technique probably secured the win. (I would add that it perhaps helps when you have long spindly arms like Valverde as opposed to the chunky guns of Gerrans.)

Anyway, the upshot of the result is that GreenEDGE are still plugging away in pursuit of that elusive first stage win.

While the GreenEDGE ladies cannot stop mounting the podium – last weekend saw victories in the Tour of New Zealand and in the women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race in Belgium – the Australian Sparkling Shiraz is still on ice for the men.

Granted, veteran Robbie McEwen notched a win in Singapore recently – but that was more of an exhibition event, and certainly no lofty Pro Tour affair.

In the men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which opened the Belgian classics season almost two weeks ago, Lithuanian Thomas Vaitkus was GreenEDGE’s best-placed rider – coming home in a lowly 56th place more than five minutes behind winner Sep Vanmarcke of Garmin-Barracuda.

The next day, another Lithuanian – Aidis Kruopis – almost made the top-ten with 12th place in the bunch sprint of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, won by the world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky).

As such, Gerrans’ second place on Tuesday marks the team’s best result on European soil so far this season.

“Obviously, we’re a little bit disappointed that I couldn’t quite finish it off,” Gerrans said after the stage. “We want a win here in Paris-Nice, but I think we’re happy enough to have had a go. To be so close shows we’re right up in there and in the mix of things. Wins in Europe aren’t too far away.”

But surely it’s not good enough for someone who has triumphed in all three Grand Tours to have simply had a go. The 31-year-old should be tearing his hair out at having lost again to Valverde; he should be asking questions of his team; working out why, once again, Valverde’s Movistar were so more prominent on the front of the peloton than his own GreenEDGE team-mates.

Make no mistake, the likes of Simon Clarke, Michael Albasini and Wes Sulzberger did a sterling job in helping Gerrans position himself in the lead up to the final sprint. And Gerrans did remarkably well to fight back onto Valverde’s wheel after losing early ground.

But the team will have to keep soul searching until that top place on the podium is theirs – and there can be no more happy-enough-to-have-given-it-a-go’s.

Wednesday’s stage four seemingly gave Gerrans an ideal opportunity to turn things round: five climbs including the punchy final ascent to Rodez looked like it would yield a similar showdown. On paper, perhaps this was the occasion that GreenEDGE would get the better of the GreenBULLET?

It looked promising until Gerrans suffered a crash in the closing two kilometres.

Jostling for position and clearly eager to be in the mix again, the Australian collided with some road furniture and hit the deck. He crossed the line 4:25 behind Belgian stage winner Gianni Meesman (Lotto-Belisol).

So it’s back to the drawing board again.