Cousin wins stage and takes overall lead
Jérôme Cousin secured a second victory in as many days for Team Europcar with victory in stage three of the Etoile de Bessèges. The 23-year-old Frenchman, who was part of an 11-man break, moved into the overall lead after securing his team's fourth win of the season.
"We could not have dreamed of a better outcome," said sporting director Dominique Arnould, summing up what was a glorious day for Team Europcar. 24 hours after Bryan Coquard sprinted to his debut stage win for his new team, Jérôme Cousin not only took a stage win of his own, he also moved to the top of the general classification with two stages remaining.
Cousin beat FDJ duo Anthony Roux and Arthur Vichot to the line after an 11-man escape group held off the peloton to contest the finale after an undulating 152.6km stage that featured three ascents of the first-category Col de Trelys.
Also involved in the main break of the day was Cousin's Europcar team-mate Cyril Gautier, as well as Björn Leukemans, Bert-Jan Lindeman (both Vacansoleil-DCM), Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ), Romain Bardet, Hubert Dupont (both AG2R-La Mondiale), Jonathan Hivert (Sojasun) and Julien Antomarchi (La Pomme Marseille).
Gautier was in fact part of an initial seven-man break that built up an early lead of over two minutes. With the gap down to 30 seconds with 40km to go, Cousin bridged the gap with four other riders. 11 riders held a one-minute lead over the peloton entering the final 10km – and despite hefty work from the Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise team of race leader Michael Van Staeyen, the group held on to contest the victory.
Stage one winner Van Staeyen led the peloton home in 12th place, 36 seconds down on Cousin, who now leads Hivert by three seconds on GC, with Bardet in third at 12 seconds. Gautier rises to fourth, 12 seconds behind his team-mate Cousin, whose closest rival – Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ) – is 27 seconds adrift.
"We wanted to attack the race from the outset in a bit to isolate [pre-race favourite] Jérôme Coppel," explained Arnould. "But the upshot is that we won the stage and find ourselves in a position where we could defend the race lead right to the end.
"We are definitely going to fight to hold the leader's jersey," confirmed Arnould. "We have around 30 seconds over our most serious rivals and morale is high. Physically, Jérôme is very strong too."
Stage four of the early-season five-day race held annually in Southern France sees the riders travel 154km from Sabran to Pont Saint Esprit. It will present sprinter Coquard the chance to make it three-from-three for Europcar.