Cousin edged out in Bessèges after ITT
Team Europcar shone on the roads of southern France in the five-day Etoile des Bessèges race – but stage three winner Jérôme Cousin was pipped in the final time trial on Sunday to lose grip on the race lead.
Cousin took a three-second lead over Sojasun's Jonathan Hivert going into the final 9.7km time trial through the streets of Ales, which was won by another Frenchman, Anthony Roux, who finished two seconds ahead of FDJ team-mate Jeremy Roy.
Not renowned for his ability against the clock, Cousin came home in 12th place, 44 seconds down on Roux but seven seconds slower than main rival Hivert, who took the overall victory by just four seconds.
Earlier on a busy final day of the race, Bryan Coquard was denied a hat-trick of stage wins when he was edged by Ag2R-La Mondiale veteran Samuel Dumoulin in the 69km stage five.
Olympic omnium champion from London 2012, Coquard had got the better of Dumoulin on his way to victories in stage two and stage four. But the 20-year-old couldn't make it a treble on his debut professional race despite once again underlining his sprinting credentials with another scintillating display.
Despite missing out on the race win by those four slender seconds, Team Europcar's overall haul for the first European stage race of the season was impressive. With three stage wins from six, Jean-René Bernaudeau's men were omni-present throughout the race – with Cyril Gautier also recording a top five finish on GC.
Coquard was the stand-out performer for Europcar throughout the race – winning two stages in emphatic fashion before coming close to a famous hat-trick in his first outing in Europcar colours. Coquard's impressive debuts for Europcar evoke those of fellow Frenchman Arnaud Démare, who broke onto the scene for FDJ last year with victories in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, Le Samyn and a stage at the Tour of Qatar.
But special mention must go to Cousin, who came within a whisker of delivering his team an unexpected overall victory before losing his grip on the crown inside the final kilometre of the time trial.
Winner of the Tour de Normandie last year, the 23-year-old turned himself into Europcar's incontestable team leader after his brilliant breakaway victory in the undulating stage three. Cousin wore the leader's coral jersey with pride and defended it with perfection until narrowly missing out at the 11th hour.
"In the end we were beaten by a rider who was stronger than us," said a stoic Dominique Arnould, directeur sportif of Europcar. "It's a shame because Jérôme still had a four-second lead over Jonathan Hivert with 800m to the finish. We would have loved to have won the Etoile but victories cannot be taken for granted."
Team Europcar may have not hung on to the overall victory, but the team's tally for the season is now up to five wins. "All in all, we can take many positives from the race," said Arnould. "Jérôme showed everyone what a strong rider he is. What's more, all the team rode well together, they all stepped up to be counted and, above all, they all defended the leader's jersey to the best of their ability. That is very promising for us going forward."
Already, things are shaping up nicely for the 2013 season. May the wins keep on coming for Team Europcar.