Thomas Voeckler had a love and hate relationship with Paris-Nice until Wednesday's 4th stage in the Beaujolais vineyards which he won after a long and fruitful break.
The French champion raised his arms at the end of the 191-km hilly ride to Belleville-sur-Saone after beating breakaway companions Remi Pauriol and Belgian Thomas de Gendt, who claimed back the race leader's yellow jersey.
Ireland’s Nicolas Roche finished 21st on the fourth stage, rolling home in the main bunch, 13 seconds behind Voeckler. That leaves him 37 seconds behind in the General Classification, in 17th place.
In 2009, Voeckler was beaten into second place in a stage finish by compatriot Jeremy Roy and broke his collarbone the following day.
Last year, he was pipped on the line in the final stage on Nice seafront and punched his handlebars in disappointment.
‘I had been waiting for this since 2003. I was second twice in the past years and I tried again yesterday,’ said Voeckler, who complained at the start in Creches-sur-Saone that his fellow riders were not bold enough.
‘Today, I told myself to try my luck far from the finish as the last climb was far from the line. I had good riders with me. It was close but it was good enough.’
Voeckler joined forces with Frenchmen Pauriol, Remy Di Gregorio and Belgians De Gendt and Francis De Greef after six kilometres and the quintet remained together over the seven hills on the day's menu.
Along the way, Pauriol secured the best climber's polka-dot jersey while De Gendt was setting a furious pace in a bid to take back the yellow jersey he lost to Australian Matthew Goss on Tuesday.
‘I thank him, I thank him a thousand times,’ Voeckler said of De Gendt's impressive performance at the front.
Initially, the Belgian, winner of Sunday's first stage in Houdan, had joined the break to collect bonus seconds in the two intermediate sprints of the day.
‘I had good legs, I wanted to ride in the front. I didn't expect it to go so well. I was riding just for the yellow jersey. If I wanted to win the stage, I would have played it smarter,’ he said.
Overall, the Vacansoleil team rider leads Voeckler by 10 seconds with Pauriol third, 16 seconds adrift.
The peloton, with Goss in last position, finished 13 seconds behind the break. Goss is now fourth overall, 21 seconds behind De Gendt.
Despite their superb display in the day's stage, Voeckler and De Gendt said they were not realistic challengers for overall victory.
‘In the 2004 Tour de France, I swapped the French champion jersey for the yellow jersey and it would be good to do it again on Paris-Nice. But with the time trial on Friday I don't have the slightest chance to win,’ Voeckler said.
‘Tomorrow is a hard stage, I have 30 seconds on the first real climbers. Maybe it will be enough, maybe not. I don't think so,’ echoed De Gendt.
Thursday's 193-km 5th stage to Vernoux-en-Vivarais is a gruelling one with seven more climbs, including two first category passes.