March 07, 2016

VENDOME, France (AP) French rider Arnaud Demare produced a late sprint to clinch the first stage of the Paris-Nice race on Monday and claim his biggest victory since winning the national championships two years ago.

Demare was the strongest in the final stretch leading to the finish line on the streets of Vendome and won ahead of Ben Swift and Nacer Bouhanni.

''It's a victory I had been waiting for a long time,'' Demare said. ''Last year was a struggle and it's nice to be able to prove I can still win a big one.''

Michael Matthews, who won the eight-day race's prologue on Sunday, kept the leader's yellow jersey. The Australian rider has a three-second overall lead over Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, with Patrick Bevin of New Zealand in third place - four seconds off the pace.

''It would be nice to win a stage but the jersey was the main focus,'' Matthews said. ''It's great to hold it for one more day especially as I managed to take two seconds in the last intermediate sprint.''

As snowflakes fell, the 198-kilometer ride started after a minute's silence in memory of French rider Romain Guyot, who recently died in a training accident.

Edward Theuns attacked with two kilometers left but was caught with 400 meters to go when the final sprint shaped up. Demare was not ideally placed but managed to beat Swift and Bouhanni to the line.

''It was not a normal sprint today,'' Demare said. ''I launched it from afar. I had decided to focus on Nacer as he had two teammates left with him. I was lucky to be able to overtake him in the last stretch and to retain enough strength to upstage Swift.''

Tuesday's second stage is a mainly flat 213.5-kilometer ride between Contres and Commentry in central France.

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