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Stage 4: Saint-Junien - Aurillac
Terrain: Classics style, up and down all the way.
GC Importance: A determined rider could steal some time on this stage, and a bad day could end the hopes of a general classification contender. Most likely, though, the general classification will await the hillier stages to come.

It’s all up and down on this stage which runs southeast from Saint-Junien to Aurillac. Saint-Junien welcomes Paris-Nice for the first time. The city sits at the gates of the Périgord-Limousin natural park and has a long history of porcelain manufacturing. Aurillac is a center for sports in France, and has frequently hosted cycling, including the French National Championships and a stage of the 2008 Tour de France.

The finish repeats the 2007 French National Championship where Christophe Moreau won. Moreau attacked on the côte de la Martinie which comes just 3 kilometers from the finish and is perfectly placed to provide the launch-pad for a winning move. This finish suits a classics rider with a talent for tactics. Philippe Gilbert is an obvious pick here. Attacking riders like Pierrick Fédrigo or Simon Gerrans could also make a run for victory in Aurillac.

Six categorized climbs give this stage its classics-like feel. The first ten kilometers are relatively flat, but beginning in Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre, the course begins a stair-stepping ascent to the first climb of the day, the Côte des Cars. With a category 3 rating, the Côte des Cars offers a nice warm-up for the day to come with 2.4 kilometers of climbing at 5.9%. A descent follows the summit at kilometer 31.5, and around 20 kilometers of uneven terrain follows. The Côte de la Croix de Teulet provides the next obstacle of the day with 3.5 kilometers of climbing at 3.9%. The Côte de la Croix de Teulet carries a category 3 rating and summits at kilometer 50.5. An intermediate sprint follows at kilometer 64.5 in Coussac-Bonneval. No rest for the weary, the third categorized climb arrives six kilometers later. The Côte de la Grande Renaudie is short at 1.7 kilometers. A category 3 climb, it has an average gradient of 4.6%.

The road bumps along for the next 40 kilometers as the course passes through Vigeois, Perpezac-le-Noir, and Chameyrat. A short descent just outside Chameyrat announces the arrival of the Côte de Sainte Fortunade. With a category 2 rating, this is the longest climb of the day. After 5.3 kilometers of climbing, the Côte de Sainte Fortunade summits at kilometer 128 and there still remains 80 kilometers of racing to the finish.

The course forms a tea cup as it passes through Forges and Argentat on the way to the near-final climb of the day. To escape the tea cup, the riders climb the Côte de Sexcles, a category 2 climb that summits with just under 40 kilometers to go. This climb offers a nice spot for an ambitious rider to split the break or for a small group to escape the main field. The climb covers 4.8 kilometers with an average gradient of 6.4%. It’s not one of the hard climbs, by any means, but after 160 kilometers of early season racing, no one will find it easy. Following the Côte de Sexcles, the course plateaus and there is a final intermediate sprint at Montvert.

The finish will suit the puncheurs, the riders who can accelerate on the short climbs and force a selection. A gradual false-flat climb begins just after the town of Saint-Paul-des-Landes at right around 15 kilometers to go. The finale follows a classic pattern with a sharp climb at 3 kilometers to go followed by a descent to the finish. The Côte de la Martinie climbs just 1.1 kilometer, but it’s fairly steep, rising at 7.2%. This is not exactly the Mur de Huy, but the Côte de la Martinie should invite the winning move and we can expect to see a small group or solo rider arrive at the finish.

Gavia (updates to this preview will be made during the race and especially the day before the stage with current analysis)<-->