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Duchesne seizes polka dots, Zakarin wins, Thomas in yellow on Paris-Nice queen stage

Saturday's queen stage was a thrilling one, with Russian rising star Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) triumphant and Geraint Thomas (Great Britain/Sky) ripping the yellow jersey off Michael Matthews' shoulders.

Saturday’s queen stage was a thrilling one, with Russian rising star Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) triumphant and Geraint Thomas (Great Britain/Sky) ripping the yellow jersey off Michael Matthews’ shoulders. Canadian Antoine Duchesne (Direct Energie) nabbed the polka dot jersey by getting in the breakaway for the second day in a row, battling last year’s King of the Mountains, Belgian Thomas De Gendt, over three mountains and then going solo over two peaks.

The race started in Nice, having reached the sun, and will also start and finish in Nice Sunday for the contest’s conclusion.

Antoine’s Friday breakmate Jesus Herrada (Spain/Movistar) led the Canadian by four KOM points and was part of an early move on the Cat. 2 Côte de Gattières, where he took five more points. The breakaway failed, but Duchesne was part of the next one that stuck. In both was Thomas De Gendt (Belgium/Lotto-Fix All) who was looking to put himself in the polka dots.

The octet of fugitives grunted up two more Cat. 2’s with De Gendt taking 7-points and Duchesne five. One of the escapees faded back to the peloton. Tinkoff drove the pace, streamlining the bunch to 60-riders before the first Cat. 1, the Côte d’Ascros. Once more it was De Gendt, followed by Duchesne, but by this time Duchesne was seven points ahead in the virtual polka dots.

Duchesne was impressing the cycling world.

The descent from the d’Ascros was formidable one, and the Tinkoff-whipped peloton only 1:10 behind the break. Would the escape survive long enough to continue the KOM battle on two more Cat. 2’s before the summit finish?

Tony the Tiger and two others nudged away from their breakmates on the twisty descent, while American fugitive Andrew Talansky (Cannondale) crashed out on the drop. On the Cat. 2 Côte de Levens Duchesne was alone at the front.

The Direct Energie man crested solo and then tried to hang on to his 50-second lead over the peloton over the short drop and penultimate climb. Behind, Alberto Contador (Spain/Tinkoff) surged through the intermediate sprint to take two bonus seconds and fire a warning shot. The final climb Duchesne could possibly survive in the front was the short but very steep Côte de Duranus, 1.6-km of 8.4%.

Sky had taken the reins on Duranus, not only pulling Duchesne back, but also dropping yellow jersey Matthews (Australia/Orica-GreenEdge), who had led from day one. Through sheer will Duchesne survived to take the maximum points before submitting to Sky’s will.

It was time for the final showdown on La Madonne D’Utelle (15.3-km of 5.7%) between Tom Dumoulin, Richie Porte, Thomas, Contador and Ion Izagirre. The two steepest sections were just after the midway point and right at the top. Nicolas Roche (Ireland) set a torrid pace for Sky teammate Thomas.

But Contador and Polish teammate Rafal Majka didn’t wait for the steep section. With 10-km remaining the Tinkoff men exploded, popping many a rider off the back. On the midpoint 9% ramp Majka dished out the pain again, launching Contador. Only the Sky duo of Sergio Henao and Thomas and Porte were able to follow. Then the surprising Zakarin, last year’s Tour of Romandie champion, latched on.

Just as a group containing Dumoulin was about to make contact, Contador attacked again and kept his quintet ahead. Simon Yates’ efforts brought Orica-GreenEdge’s Brit to the leaders.

The final 500-metres were 11%. Before this wall, Porte upped the pace. Contador attacked on the ramp, but it was Thomas who took the lead in the final 300-metres. Right alongside was Zakarin, whose final burst gave him the victory.

Thomas leads Contador by 15-seconds with one hilly stage around Nice remaining. Duchesne will have to be attentive to who is in the breakaway Sunday to ensure his polka dot jersey. He leads De Gendt by 21-points and Herrada by 20, with six categorized climbs on tap in the final stage.

2016 Paris-Nice Stage 6
1) Ilnur Zakarin (Russia/Katusha) 4:45:11
2) Geraint Thomas (Great Britain/Sky) s.t.
3) Alberto Contador (Spain/Tinkoff) +0:01
53) Antoine Duchesne (Canada/Direct Energie) +14:25

2016 Paris-Nice GC
1) Geraint Thomas (Great Britain/Sky) 24:10:26
2) Alberto Contador (Spain/Tinkoff) +0:15
3) Ilnur Zakarin (Russia/Katusha) +0:20
44) Antoine Duchesne (Canada/Direct Energie) +15:56