We must apologise for late posting of Joe Bishop’s race report which was delivered immediately after the end of Paris – Nice, unfortunately we have not posted it until after today’s Milan – San Remo race. However read this report and see if you can spot the uncanny coincidence in the results from one of the stages of Paris – Nice and today’s result at San Remo.
Continental Race Report: Paris – Nice
The new cycling season is well underway, with multiple races already completed on (and off) the continent. This means that soon, those gunning for Grand Tour victory must announce themselves, and what better place to do so than at Paris – Nice? Also known as ‘The Race to the Sun’, Paris – Nice takes place in France over seven days from Paris to Nice – hence the name! Unlike the Tour de France, the weather is extremely cold, making the text extra tough for the riders looking to gain momentum. It’s used by lots of riders as a warm-up race for the Giro or the Tour, but it’s important that doesn’t undermine the difficulty of the race itself. Past winners include the likes of Jacques Anquetil, Tom Simpson, Eddy Mercx, and Bradley Wiggins.
Lining up at the start this year was last edition’s winner, Richie Porte (BMC), who was aiming to make it his third win in the race. Joining him was Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Romain Bardet (AG2R), Tom Dumoulin (Giant) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale). Leading the charge for the Brits was Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Simon Yates (Orica). For the sprints, Marcel Kitell was racing with his new team Etixx Quickstep, along with Michael Matthews (Orica), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal).
The race commenced with a 6.1 km prologue. Tom Dumoulin was the undoubtable favourite, given his success in the Time Trial discipline, but it was Matthews who emerged the surprise winner to take the yellow jersey. Dumoulin was a tantalising one second off the pace. Thomas (Sky) rode superbly to finish seventh – the best of the GC contenders – only seven seconds back.
Stage 1 was a pan-flat stage, and for the sprinters it never looked in doubt, though there was some complication in the form of narrow gravel roads – much like those at Strade Biancha a week earlier, which was won by Fabian Cancellara (Trek). As expected, the race came down to a sprint, but the winner was far from expected: Arnaud Demare (FDJ. He timed his sprint perfectly to beat Ben Swift (Sky), and Bouhanni. Matthews came in fifth, keeping a firm hold on the yellow jersey. The next day’s stage seemed as though it would finish in similar circumstances, and sure enough it did. The four-man break never stood a chance against the Orica lead peloton, however the sprint was not straightforward. Coming to the line, Bouhanni and Matthews were neck and neck, until the former seemed to ride into the latter. Matthews heroically managed to retain control of his bike, but in doing so lost his speed, allowing Bouhanni to take the win. The celebrations were short lived though, as the race commissaires deemed Bouhanni’s actions illegal. He was consequently relegated to third and Matthews was awarded the stage win, which was sweetened by the fact that he held onto the lead.
Along with stage 3 came the first summit finish of Mont Brouilly, and along with that came the climbers’ first opportunity to announce their presence. A group of 14 went away, stretching their lead to over 5 minutes, but it was not to be. With 100km to go, snow was coming down hard on the riders to the extent that the organisers were forced to stop the stage. Luckily, stage 4 remained snow-free, although the riders still had to be wrapped-up warm. The break went clear early on, and it included everyone’s favourite Frenchman: Thomas Voeckler, most famous for his terrific facial expressions whilst riding his bike. It soon split up though, and Voeckler couldn’t make the junction to the front three: Sylvain Chavanel (IAM), Sep vanmarke (Lotto NL-Jumbo), and Cruz (KTM). With 2km to go, it looked as though the trio might make it, but at just under 1km, they were overtaken by an extremely motivated Nacer Bouhanni, who sprinted perfectly to take the win, this time without colliding with other riders.
Stage 5 had a very interesting profile, one reason being the climb of Mont Ventoux – albeit only halfway before turning off. After Ventoux, the riders were tasked with two category 2 climbs within the last 40km. After the early flurry of attacks, the peloton soon settled into a rhythm, and had it all under control at the foot of Ventoux. As a result of the epic climb’s brutal slopes, the pure sprinters cold not hold on, leaving only Matthews and Kristoff (Katusha) left to contest the win should it come down to a sprint. Alexey Lutsenko was having none of it, and attacked on the descent of the Cote de la Roque D’Antheron. Despite Katusha’s best efforts, they could not catch the inspired Astana rider, to take quite possibly the biggest win of his career. Matthews finished 3rd, 21 seconds back, which meant he held on to his yellow jersey by six seconds from Lutsenko.
One only had to look at the profile of stage 6 however, to see that Matthews wouldn’t be in yellow for much longer. The stage consisted of 7 categorised climbs, finishing on the Madone D’Utelle – 15km at 5.4%. A break of 9 went away, including Andrew Talansky (Cannondale). Contador’s Tinkoff team were not in a forgiving mood though, setting a high pace over the day’s climb. In doing so they caught the break, but perhaps made a mistake – Contador had left only a handful of teammates on the final climb, and so Team Sky came to the front trying to set-up Geraint Thomas. They lead until seven km to go when Rafael Majka (Tinkoff) came forward with Contador glued to his wheel. Due to an incredible pace, when he pulled off with only 5 km to go, only the favourites were left: Thomas, Contador, Porte, Sergio Haeno (Sky) and Illnur Zakarin (Katusha). The five went all the way to the line, with Zakarin as the victor. Thomas came in second, with Contador a second back, and Porte seven seconds back. Simon Yates rode splendidly to finish 20 seconds back. Along with second place on the stage, came the yellow jersey for Thomas. Contador mover up to second, 15 seconds back, Zakarin third a further five seconds back, and Porte lay just outside the podium places, 21 seconds behind his old teammate Thomas.
The final stage took place on a short course starting and finishing in Nice. It included six climbs, with the Col D’Eze finishing it off. Contador was on the attack constantly; trying to claw back the 15 seconds he needed to take the lead of Thomas. Try as he might however, Team Sky kept pulling him back. Contador smelt blood on the Col D’Eze though, when Thomas appeared to blow up. The Spaniard attacked, followed by Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Richie Porte, Haeno was there for Thomas though, ensuring he only lost five seconds on the line, which was enough to take the win. Contador and Porte joined him on the podium. Meanwhile, Simon Yates came in seventh. It was a fantastic win for the Welshman, and bodes well for his biggest season yet, as he attempts to support Chris Froome in the mountains of the Tour de France.
The next big race on the cycling calendar is the first monument of the season – Milan – San Remo. Known as the sprinters’ classic, it promises to be fast and furious. Watch this space…