NICE — Belgium's Thomas de Gendt won the seventh and penultimate stage of the Paris-Nice here Saturday with a lead of more than six minutes over Estonia's Rein Taaramae and nine minutes over the peloton.
Bradley Wiggins retained the race leader's yellow jersey, on the eve of Sunday's 9.6 km uphill time trial from Nice to the Col d'Eze, putting him on course to become the race's first British winner since Tom Simpson in 1967.
At 219.5 km, Saturday's stage from Sisteron to Nice was the longest of the race.
Vacansoleil rider De Gendt and Cofidis' Taaramae broke from the peloton in the 48th kilometre and stretched their advantage to almost 13 minutes.
Fifty-six kilometres from the finishing line, De Gendt outdistanced the Estonian as they neared the summit of the Col de Vence, and pulled further ahead as they began the long ride down into Nice.
De Gendt has sported the number 103 in the race, which he noted had proven lucky before.
"It's the same one I had last year when I won the first stage," he said.
The Belgian also did well in the 2011 edition of the Tour de France, coming sixth in the tough Alpe d'Huez mountain stage and fourth in the time trial in Grenoble, feats all the more impressive because he had considered pulling out after a fall.
He will not be racing in this year's Tour, however, as he is getting married on June 30, on the grounds that the numbers six and 30 are his and his fiancee's birthdays.
The 25-year-old's win was the third Belgian victory in the Paris-Nice after Tom Boonen's in Orleans and Gianni Meersman's in Rodez.
It likewise marked a trio of honours for Dutch team Vacansoleil, following Swede Gustav Larsson's victory in the time trial at Saint-Remy-les-Chevreuse and Dutchman Lieuwe Westra's win at Mende.
The day was miserable for American Levi Leipheimer, of Omega Pharma, who had started the day third in the overall standings but lost his podium berth.
Leipheimer fell twice, and then a third time 20 kilometres from the finish after crashing into a police motorbike which had stopped in a bend to protect another grounded rider.
He battled to catch up the peloton, but finished almost seventeen minutes behind them, dropping to 39th in the overall standings.
The stage left Wiggins with a six-second lead on Westra, who could pull off a surprise on Sunday, having come eighth in the world time trial championships in 2011.
Spainiard Alejandro Valverde, meanwhile, stood 18 seconds behind.
Aside from having Westra snapping at his heels, Wiggins will also have to steer clear of the virus that has ripped through the peloton and forced his German team-mate Christian Knees.
Copyright © 2012 AFP