France's Sylvain Chavanel of the Quick Step team seized the overall lead of the Paris-Nice race by winning the third stage.
| Chavanel outfoxes the Rabobank team [AFP]
Chavanel contributed to a stunning tactical coup initiated by the Rabobank team that was fatal to Spaniard Alberto Contador, who was wearing the leader's yellow jersey before the start of the 178-kilometre stage from Orval.
A sudden acceleration by seven men from Dutch outfit Rabobank blasted the peloton some 40 km from the finish and while Astana's Contador could not follow the pace, the in-form Chavanel went with them.
He was then the most active rider in a leading group of 10 riders and outsprinted Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha of Spain to cross the line one minute and nine seconds ahead of the pack.
Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld of Rabobank was third.
Chavanel, who joined Quick Step from Cofidis during the off season, leads Spanish Rabobank team mates Juan Manuel Garate and Flecha by 33 and 36 seconds respectively in the overall standings.
Race favourite Contador dropped to sixth overall, one minute and three seconds off the pace.
"It was a typical Paris-Nice stage," Chavanel said.
"I saw the Rabobank regroup and I changed my position in the peloton, I was ready to go to war."
However, the 29-year-old Frenchman would not get carried away because there were some steep climbs to come, like Friday's summit finish at the Montagne de Lure.
"I know that compared to the best climbers, like Contador, I won't say I don't stand a chance but I cannot dream," he said.
Last year, Chavanel had taken the overall lead in St Etienne before collapsing on the ascent to the intimidating Mont Ventoux, a climb similar to the Montagne de Lure.
"Last year, I had returned to the hotel at 10 pm, my recuperation was not good," he explained.
"This season, my physical condition is better so I could achieve something."
Australian Cadel Evans, second overall in last year's Tour de France, was trapped by Rabobank's move and cracked, finishing more than 10 minutes behind Chavanel.
Earlier on Tuesday, five men broke away after 15 km and fought gusty winds and rain to build a gap of seven minutes and 15 seconds.
Frenchmen Christophe Le Mevel and Stephane Auge, Belgian Jurgen Roelandts, Poland's Maciej Bodnar and Dutchman Tom Veelers, however, were caught 30 km from the finish by Chavanel's group.
Contador, trapped by Rabobank's move, failed to close in with a solo effort and quickly lost ground.
Frank Schleck's Saxo Bank team worked hard in the bunch to try and close the gap but Chavanel and his fellow fugitives proved too strong.
Chavanel will defend his yellow jersey over 173.5 km from Vichy to St Etienne in the fourth stage on Wednesday.
The race ends in Nice on Sunday.