Westra leads Vacansoleil from controversy to the podium

Westra, De Gendt and Larsson lead Dutch squad from the Riccò embarrassment to the podium

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NICE, France (VN) – Dutch outfit Vacansoleil-DCM enjoyed a banner week at Paris-Nice, logging plenty of podium time in what marks an arrival of sorts for the squad. The success at “The Race to the Sun” comes a year after controversy and heroics pushed the squad into the headlines.

Lieuwe Westra’s second-place overall caps a dominant ride by the team, which won three stages and the best climber’s jersey as well as the team competition.

“It’s been a great week for me but also for my team,” said Westra, who enjoyed a breakout performance this week with a stage win at Mende and missed the overall win by just eight seconds. “This has been a great week for the team. This will only give us more confidence for the future.”

Vacansoleil started the week off with the time trial victory of Gustav Larsson, one of 12 new additions for 2012. Larsson missed the decisive move in Monday’s second stage, but Westra saved the day when he snuck into the 21-rider group that stayed clear.

After that, it was obvious the winner was going to come out of that group.

Many expected Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to give Sky’s Bradley Wiggins the most trouble, but Leipheimer crashed three times in Saturday’s penultimate stage and was eliminated from the GC picture.

Valverde roared back into contention with time bonuses that came with his win in stage 3, but he didn’t have the legs to counter Wiggins up the Mende climb in stage 5.

Westra came out of the woodwork with a surprise victory atop La Croix Neuve above Mende. A solid time trialist, the Dutchman lost weight over the winter to improve his climbing skills.

On Sunday, Westra proved once again a worthy adversary, posting the best intermediate time, four seconds faster than Wiggins at that point, and pushed the eventual winner to the limit.

“That was bloody close,” Wiggins said of Westra. “After Mende, we knew he would be good again today. I had to give everything I had to beat him.”

Thomas De Gendt gave the team its third stage win on Saturday in Nice, riding into the day’s winning breakaway and then dropping Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) to solo home the victory.

“We are improving as a team and it’s showing in this race,” De Gendt said. “Every year we have gotten better. I think Paris-Nice is the start of what I believe will be a huge year for the team.”

Since its debut in 2009, Vacansoleil has made steady progress over the past few seasons, solidifying its place in the peloton with solid results.

Last year, the team earned huge media coverage during the Tour de France after Johnny Hoogerland was involved in the disastrous crash that began when a French television car drove into the winning break on the stage to Saint-Flour. That followed the negative attention the squad garnered in the spring when new recruit Riccardo Riccò was hospitalized after an alleged blood transfusion-gone-wrong. At the same time, the team found itself in the headlines over its on-again, off-again relationship with banned Spanish rider Ezequiel Mosquera.

But the team is now starting to gain media attention with victories.

Young riders such De Gendt, Pim Ligthart and Woulter Poels, who enjoyed a strong Vuelta a España last year, give the team a strong face for the future to go along with the more experienced legs of Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans and Kevin van Impe.

“The team is working at another level this year and the results here show it,” said sport director Jean Paul van Poppel. “We will have a strong classics team next month and we will have a good squad for the grand tours. We expect a big year.”

After Paris-Nice, they have certainly set the bar very high for the remainder of the year.

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