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By VeloNews Interactive wire services, Copyright AFP2002
Deutsche Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokurov rode into Nice to secure his first Paris-Nice triumph Sunday on the seventh and final stage won by Australian national champion Robbie McEwen of Lotto.
After 157km of racing around Nice, McEwen held off Belgian sprinter Tom Steels, who finished second, and fellow Australian Baden Cooke to win his second stage of the first major stage race of the season. Vinokurov, a 28-year-old from Kazakhstan who honed his trade in France, took the lead of the “Race to the Sun” on Thursday on the climb to the summit finish at Eze, and took care to maintain his advantage to the end of the event.
“I came here to win. I’ve fulfilled my goal and I’m really proud to have won such a big race,” beamed the normally stoic Kazakh after winning his first Paris-Nice.
“In 1999 I had prepared well for this race but then I crashed. Next I’ll be preparing to help (Erik) Zabel win his Milan-San Remo (March 23).”
In second overall was rising French star Sandy Casar, 23, who nailed a solid performance in Saturday’s stage where older compatriot Laurent Jalabert lost almost a minute to Vinokurov.
“It’s unbelievable! I never thought at the start of the race I could finish so well,” said Casar after registering his best ever career finish.
Casar finished 55secs behind Vinokurov in the overall standings. Jalabert, 33, finished third overall at 57sec in a race he has previously won three times in a row (1995, 1996, 1997).
Jalabert, who shocked everyone by winning the 2001 Tour de France polka dot jersey for the best climber, put his late fall down the standings down to a lack of leg power.
“I would be disappointed if I actually did have the legs to win the race,” Jalabert explained. “But I’m really tired. My legs feel like they have just finished the Tour de France!”
McEwen, who won Tuesday’s second stage, dominated a mass sprint to the line to lift his profile at this early stage in the season.
The 29-year-old Australian sprinter, fresh from a blistering performance in the Tour Down Under, where he won four stages, and overall victory in the Etoile de Besseges, brushed aside breathing problems to let his legs do the talking.
“My legs were feeling fine before the start of the stage although I’ve had a few bronchial problems for the past few days,” McEwen said after his win, which came despite some nervous riding between him and Cooke.
“It wasn’t an easy sprint. I stuck to Steels’ wheel and got scared of being closed in when (Baden) Cooke brushed me a bit,” added McEwen who will also be preparing for the Milan-San Remo, the first event of the season’s World Cup.
Paris-Nice, which was saved from bankruptcy by the company which runs the Tour de France, gives a general indication of how riders are progressing before the classics season starts.
However the victory plaudits will lie squarely with Vinokurov, a resident of nearby Monaco whose primary job at Telekom is to play the faithful lieutenant behind former Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich in the big Tours.
“I came here thinking I could win,” admitted Jalabert. “But Vinokurov simply climbed better than me.”