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Notes from Nice

Between moving and starting a new job, I wasn’t able to pay nearly as much attention to Paris-Nice as I usually do. It’s a race I love for its harshness, its unpredictability, and the scrappy riding that emerges on the hills and shorter cols the March weather constricts the race to. But, with the weekend I was able to catch up on some of the action from the Race to the Sun and came away with a few impressions.

Was anyone genuinely surprised that Richie Porte won? I surely wasn’t. The Tasmanian won here in 2013 because he is one of the best climbers in the world, taking time the leader’s jersey off race leader Andrew Talansky on La Montagne de Lure and padding his victory margin with a decisive ride up the Col d’Eze time trial on the final stage. But it wasn’t a straightforward application of watts that won Porte the race. Instead, he not only survived the opening stages but thrived, making it into a small split on the race’s hilly third stage and then driving the group to ensure a gap to the chasing peloton. Despite what his background in triathlon may make one think, Porte is a fighter, so it was no surprise he performed well enough on this year’s rainy, mountainous, and treacherous Stage 6 to remain within striking distance of the yellow jersey until the final stage. Even after taking a spill on one of the day’s many rain-slicked descents, Porte continued to contribute to the chase of Tony Gallopin. Though Gallopin’s performance that day made some think he could hold onto the yellow jersey he donned after the stage, Porte didn’t need him to have a bad day in order to win. One wonders just how long it will be before Porte has both the opportunity and proper lead-up to target a grand tour. The more I watch him race, the more I think he could thrive in the chaos of the Giro d’Italia.

But beyond Porte’s not-so-surprising victory, I saw a lot to get excited about. The potentially disruptive crosswinds never truly materialized in the early, later stages, allowing the familiar routine of chase, catch, sprint to play out for the first three days. After Porte won the mountaintop finish of Stage 4, though, the action picked up. Thomas de Gent showed flashes of his old self, fighting for the mountains jersey and almost pulling off a stage win on Stage 5, only getting caught inside the final 200 meters.

And then, on Stage 6, we got the barn-burner of a stage we hoped for when we first saw the profile with its six categorized climbs. Michael Kwiatkowski, perhaps nervous with such a small lead over Richie Porte, attacked with teammates on a descent 60 kilometers from the finish, and then again on the next descent. While it did not pay off and a weakened Kwiatkowski would struggle to remain on terms with the group containing Richie Porte and teammate Geraint Thomas in the final twenty kilometers, the reigning world champion on the road showed a glimpse into how he is likely to attack stage races in the future. This is not a rider who sits back and lets a race be dictated to him. Instead, Kwiatkowski never seems afraid to give it a go, even when the odds of a move paying off may seem slim. It's the kind of aggression that won him the world title last October, after all. Maybe it's relative youth, or maybe just how he is programmed to race, but I sure hope we continue to see this side of him. It reminds me a touch of a young Phillippe Gilbert, though hopefully he can be a little smarter about it going forward.

Ahead of Kwiatkowski, Porte, Thomas, and the other GC contenders was Tony Gallopin, powering on to a memorable solo win that is already a contender for one of the best race days of the year. Like Kwiatkowski, Gallopin is a young rider with a penchant for racing aggressively and his risks have begun to pay off more over time. In 2013, he won the Classica San Sebastian with a brilliantly timed move 15 kilometers from the finish on the race's final climb. On Stage 11 of last year's Tour de France Gallopin attacked twice inside the final five kilometers, taking advantage of a stalemate between Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb to eke out just enough of an advantage to avoid recapture in the final kilometer.

Gallopin is no doubt strong, but he is also a superb tactician, most recently riding the coattails of Kwiatkowski's early attacks and then pouncing when the Polish rider looked vulnerable on a subsequent climb, escaping before the rest of the contenders for the general classification made it back to Kwiatkowski. Though he does not strike often, Gallopin's timing often means once he springs free he is very difficult to bring back. One of the big questions that arises out of this year's Paris-Nice is how much more Gallopin will progress in the next few years. He seems well-suited to be a contender at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold - not to mention the Giro di Lombardia and any other hilly one-day race - but are his recent performances the result of being a second tier contender with more leeway? When he attacks with 15 kilometers remaining in the finale of Liege, will he be marked out of contention? Of course, the same could be said of Phillippe Gilbert, and he continues to win the same races.

These were the impressions Paris-Nice made on me this year. What about you?