What does it take to win a stage race? Legs, sure, but that's only part of the equation. Sometimes a bit - or quite a bit, really! - of tactical nous is required.
Nothing could be a better test of how well-rounded a rider is than Paris-Nice, which throws a little bit of everything at riders over the course of its eight stages. Time trials? We got enough to make a good chrono man an outside threat, but the last day time trial up the Col d'Eze isn't long or steep or flat enough to make huge time differences. Mountaintop finishes, but not the monstrous climbs used in the grand tours? Check. In addition to the climb into Mende, there are uphill finishes on stages three and four. The latter comes after a very lumpy day, so waiting til the final 400m climb is not going to be on everyone's agenda.
And there is wind. Let us not forget the day Rabobank attacked en masse in the 2009 edition of Paris Nice (and how they got punked by Chavanel in the finale, hehe).
All told, Paris-Nice is a race that is won as much with your head as it is with your legs. At only a week long, it is not long enough to weed out contenders through fatigue. The route often favors aggression, not conservatism - and this is even more true this year. So who can harness the route to use their legs and their tactical nous to get one-up over their competition?
The challenges that face our contenders this year are varied and Gavia has already provided superb coverage of them. But the question of how everyone will deal with them is less explored, which is where I come in!
The Paris-Nice often begins with a time trial, and this year it concludes with them. They're short - both under 15 kilometers - and the latter is up the Cote d'Eze. An uphill time trial, you say? Advantage climbers! But... not quite. You see, Cote d'Eze isn't a super steep climb and there is a little bit of flat road beforehand. Don't expect it to hurt the likes of Leipheimer, Martin, and Wiggins too much.
Advantage: Levi Leipheimer, Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins, Louis Leon Sanchez, and Tejay Van Garderen are the names that jump out at first. All excellent time trialists, and all but Martin have good pedigree as diesels going uphill too. Oh, and there is Menchov. If you really expect him not to be Mr Invisible Man this week.
Disadvantage: Valverde, perhaps. There is just barely enough climbing on Eze to keep things kinda equal.
Update: Andy and Frank Schleck lost about a minute on Sunday. That's gonna be hard to make up, ain't it?
Wind, baby, wind!
Paris-Nice is in spring. In Europe. Which means, of course, that the weather is often miserable. Spring is when wind is the greatest and the first few days are in the central portion of France, which is exposed and not too hilly. So, guess what, it's gonna be cold, wet, and you'll have echelons! Though not always decisive, the wind in Paris-Nice often does a good job of culling down the field. In 2009, Rabobank attacked as a unit into a crosswind on stage 3, shattering the field and really putting a damper on Contador's chances at a victory that year. Depending on who is in and out of the split, numerous individuals could be out of the running by stage 3.
Advantage: Tony Martin has some experience shattering peletons in crosswinds. Remember that stage in the 2010 tour when HTC laid down the law? Yeah, der panzerwagen is not likely to be at a disadvantage here. And this year he's on a classics team which thrives on echelon action. Others to watch out for are LL Sanchez (he's on Rabobank, after all), Bradley Wiggins, and Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel isn't a pure GC threat, but if there is a front echelon, he'll be there and gaining time. And he's a French rider (and TT champ) in a race in France. So there's that.
Disadvantage: Andy and Frank Schleck. If they have Fabian Cancellara to guide them (their normal sherpas for classics conditions), they would be okay. But he is racing in Tirreno instead. Uh-oh.
Update: Wind! Echelons! The expected happened (I swear, I had factored wind into my GC preview before today, scout's honor) and a number of potential hopefuls lost their chances today as a lead group of 21 riders put a staggering 2:29 into the peleton. Biggest losers? Tony Martin, Menchov, Rein Taaramae, LL Sanchez, and Damiano Cunego.
So, there are climbs, you say? Yes, there are! Lots! After all, it is a real stage race. But these aren't the massive molehills we climb in the summer. You see, a lot of those still have snow on top of them, it barely being spring and all. Really, it might as well still be winter. So we have punchy climbs, the most important of which is the 3km climb to the airstrip in Mende that averages 10%. (10% Really, wouldn't it be faster to use a ladder?)
There are also time bonuses available for the first three riders to finish the stages, which makes the uphill kicks to the line in stages 3 and 4 particularly important. So you need a punchy climber, not just a diesel, in order to create big time gaps.
Advantage: Alejandro Valverde is the most likely to pick up time gaps in the climby stages, particularly 3, 4, and 5. He is a punchy climber that can sprint, so even if he doesn't get separation on the climb to Mende, he'll likely nab some of the bonus seconds. Also, this is very much Damiano Cunego turf and both Tejay Van Garderen and Rein Taaramae can go uphill, particularly on shorter ones, with the best when they're on their days.
Frank Schleck will climb with the best, but Andy typically isn't on form this early in the season. My money's on Frank being the Radioshack Trek Nissan leader.
Disadvantage: Tony Martin. Diesel climber who may stay in contact to Mende, but probably not. Wiggins is also a diesel, but he's got a little more climber in his genes these days than the Panzerwagen.
Those Pesky Tactics
So now we know who is going to be good and where. Plus, we've actually seen two days of racing, so we know who has been eliminated so far. We have five GC type riders left after today's carnage. Out of these five riders, who is going to win? I doubt we'll see big time gaps among them in Mende and up Col d'Eze, with the exception of Monfort probably being a little out of the running. So who has the tactical nous to put one over on their rivals?
- Bradley Wiggins (Sky): Your race leader as of today, Wiggins was on the lookout today and beat Valverde in a sprint for an intermediate time bonus. Someone clearly wants to win this, don't they? Wiggins won't be aggressive, but he probably won't be missing any big moves.
- Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): Winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Twice. You don't win classics by missing big moves or not being aggressive. This guy knows how to race his bike, and the fact that he was going for intermediate bonuses today also shows he's tuned in.
- Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma QuickStep): Not the most daring rider. He'll try to hang on up the climbs but he will be content to let things go down to the final time trial. That would be a fine strategy... if he weren't up against people who are going to take gobs of time bonuses on the stages beforehand. Put simply, Levi's preferred tactics don't match up well with this year's route.
- Tejay Van Garderen (BMC): Rember the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year? The one where Tejay bombed a rainy descent to drop Levi and take over the race lead for a day? He lost it in the uphill time trial, but Tejay clearly isn't averse to risks. He also knows he'll likely have to take them to come out on top of the other 3.