CNN  — 

An exhausted Max Schachmann clung on for overall victory as a truncated version of the prestigious Paris-Nice cycling race, held under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, reached a dramatic conclusion Saturday.

The 26-year-old German from the Bora-hansgrohe team kept the yellow jersey after a summit finish in Valdeblore La Colmiane to win by 18 seconds from Belgium’s Tiesj Benoot with Colombian rookie Sergio Higuita in third, just under a minute down.

Pre-race favorite Nairo Quintana of Colombia won the 166.5km stage, his fifth victory of the season for his new team Arkea-Samsic, charging clear of the main contenders, including Schachmann, on the final climb.

Colombia's Nairo Quintana celebrates as he crosses the finish line at the end of the 166.5 km, seventh and final stage of the 78th edition of the Paris - Nice cycling race between Nice and Valdeblore La Colmiane.

Benoot gave late chase, causing alarm bells for the race leader who had to dig deep to preserve his overall lead.

“The last three kilometers were hell, but now I’m in heaven. This is the greatest victory of my life,” said Schachmann, who led the race from start to finish after taking the opening stage, which were marked by brutal crosswinds.

Quintana suffered a crash on that stage and was unable to retrieve the time he lost, but showed his undoubted class to finish the “Race to the Sun” with such an emphatic display.

World champion pulls out

Organizers ASO, who also run the Tour de France, had taken an earlier decision to cut Sunday’s eighth and final stage in light of the health concerns for both riders and spectators.

But some questioned the wisdom of continuing the race at all in the light of the rapidly escalating crisis, while seven leading teams, including Team Ineos and Movistar, did not take up their invitations to participate in the world tour race.

The Bahrain-McLaren team subsequently withdrew before the start of stage six and Israel Start-Up Nation announced they would not be starting Saturday’s stage.

World road race champion Mads Pedersen of Denmark was another non-starter, the Trek-Segafredo rider issuing a statement to explain his decision.

“My country has asked that all Danish nationals go home as soon as possible, so in agreement with the team I’m not taking the start this morning to respect this decision.”

Denmark announced Friday it would shut its borders to most foreign visitors for a month from Saturday in an effort to tackle spread of the virus.

Bardet criticizes organizers

Home favorite Romain Bardet was one of 92 riders in a depleted field to start the final stage, but aired his views the previous evening to French media.

“I didn’t understand why the race went on today. We seem out of place on a bike when everyone is making efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

“What’s the sense of it all, especially towards the rest of the population? We do our little race as if nothing is happening. It’s all very strange. Nothing surprises me in 2020. I’m especially worried about the general health situation,” Bardet said.

Saturday’s racing will certainly be the last major action for the world’s top cyclists for some time, with the spring classics, races such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix looking set to be postponed or canceled altogether.

Organizers of the Giro D’Italia, which was due to start May 9, have already postponed the first major tour of the season, with fears even for July’s Tour de France.

Quintana, who will now be among the favorites for the Tour if it takes place, made a plea for “everyone to listen to everything the authorities say” as he headed home to spend time with his family in Colombia.

“Let’s hope this problem is over soon,” he said.