Paris-Nice used to be the first look at the major Tour de France contenders racing together, but this year that role shifted to supposedly sunny Italy as five recent Grand Tour winners and podiums descended on the race of the two seas. Headline after headline in the cycling media touted the "Tour de France quality field." But with 3.5 months until the big show begins in Corsica, what can we learn from the past week of racing?
Gleaning information about a race three months into the future is always hard, and it is tempting to simply recite the GC and add an asterisk on the end that says "not liable for faulty predictions for races in July." But rather than doing something that anybody can do on their own time, it is more interesting to look at specific moments in the race and try to glean important information from there. Here are my three moments - feel free to add yours in the comments!
- Team Sky will make things hard for the climbers when they try to unseat Froome. Watch any mountain stage from last year's Tour and you know what I'm talking about - the black line of jerseys stoically setting a harsh but not unbearable tempo on the front of the peleton up every mountain pass limited the ability of the pure climbers to hurt Wiggins, and it is likely to do the same this year with Froome in the driver's seat. One of the things climbers like Contador and Rodriguez rely on up the final climbs of mountain stages is their ability to accelerate, recover, and then hit the gas another time, and another, and another. When Sky keeps the pace steadily high, these accelerations do not put sufficient distance into Froome or Wiggins to ring alarm bells and when things come back together, Sky's leader does not have to recover from a super-maximal effort. With Froome able to deal with the fast-slow-fast-slow style of Contador better than Wiggins, Sky's mountain contingent becomes an even deadlier weapon.
- Froome may be vulnerable in uncertain environments. On the penultimate stage, Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez had their way with Froome, distancing him on a steep wall in the final 15km and holding him off on the downhill and flat run to the line. Nibali will be racing the Giro d'Italia this May rather than focusing on the Tour de France, but Froome will face challenges from other similarly aggressive riders. Though it was made much closer to the finish, the move reminded me of Alberto Contador's long-range attack on Stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana last year that isolated Rodriguez and won Contador the race.
Last year, Nibali tried a similar move on Stage 16 of the Tour last year, attacking on a descent and bridging up to his then teammate Peter Sagan in an attempt to catch Sky off guard. That time, Bradley Wiggins simply had too many riders around him still for the audacious vie for race leadership to succeed. But if a time comes when Froome is isolated in July, will he have the instincts and ability to race solo against the remainder of the contenders after being able to rely so heavily on his team in the past two years?
- The Contador-Froome duel will be entertaining to watch. Contador is often heralded as the greatest stage racer of his generation but Froome seems impossibly powerful these days, having the strength to both climb with the best and be considered a specialist in the time trial. Contador used to be in the same class, but his time trial seems to have suffered this year, as was especially visible in the final stage of Tirreno. I give the edge to Contador on the climbs when he is in top form, even though Froome got the better of him in the past week, but will it be enough to compensate for Froome's likely advantage in the time trials? Contador may be forced to race even more aggressively than he is accustomed to, which has me salivating.