So, yeah, last week I wrote a preview of Paris-Nice. Yes, it was grouchy. I did not mean it to seem, however, like I was expecting a poor race — I was expecting a completely adequate one, if not the most memorable edition out of the competitive recent years. Stage 8 today, however, was special. Alberto Contador was not there to ignite the race, but he was well-replaced by a different Spaniard, Catalan Marc Soler, who succeeded where Contador hadrecently failed, in actually winning the thing on the final day. This stage has never disappointed, and Soler kept that record going, making an audacious attack fifty kilometres out alongside stage winner David De La Cruz to catch Omar Fraile. The three worked well when they had to, showing Jerome Cousin the proper way to get to the finish line.
Soler was not the strongest rider in the race, he wasn’t even the strongest rider on the day, and as De La Cruz went up the road I thought that his chances of pulling on the yellow jersey as the race returned to the Promenade des Anglais had gone up in smoke, but his effort to catch up at the summit of the Col des Quatre Chemins was truly dogged, worthy of a win. Even then, the drama had only begun. Ion Izagirre’s crash on the treacherous descent robbed his brother of a shot at victory, in what will surely cause one hell of a family argument. Then there was Simon Yates, so strong on Friday and Saturday, yet weak today, fighting back to try to save his race as his brother put his stamp over Tirreno-Adriatico.
The camera cuts back to the sodden front group. Fraile and De La Cruz are strong descenders, stronger than Soler, who is low on energy now, trying desperately to winch his way back to his companions. If he doesn’t this time, he will lose, as he knows. But as the road switches from the long, slippery roads outside of Nice to the twistier thoroughfares of the city, the leaders’ momentum must drop, and Soler can catch back up, going straight to the front, but getting a few seconds of relief from the wind. He’s spent. The line approaches and he loses seconds instantly as De La Cruz inches the sprint to win the final stage of Paris-Nice for the second year in a row, and jumping into the top ten for the first. Soler crosses three seconds down, but takes four vital bonus seconds. Camera cuts to his face, and back a few hundred metres. Patrick Konrad, a quiet revelation this week, leads the Yates group in. It’s not enough, and Yates knows it.
It’s joy for Soler, who along with his most prominent helper for the week, Richard Carapaz, finally delivers for Movistar’s young climbers. Well, I say finally, he came to a degree of prominence on this very stage last year, finishing just after Contador, before going on to the Volta a Catalunya and finishing on the podium. That, it is clear, was just a taste of what the twenty-four year-old can go on to do. Not only did he put in a dedicated performance on the mountain stages, just look at the time-trial, in which only Poels [whom I clearly cursed, alongside Fuglsang (crash on stage 1) and Martin (a cold), in my preview] could beat him. Soler is a versatile, well-rounded young rider, who can challenge in most hilly stage races, and should not be underestimated for the rest of the year. He’s not the strongest climber or descender, but the all-rounder can never be ignored.
Away from Soler, Sky had a torrid week, even if their fortunes took a turn for the better at the crossing of the tape today. Wout Poels looked an assured winner, deserving his status as favourite. But the tarmac around Vence has never respected such things. Poels’ race programme is as splintered now as his collarbone. He wasn’t the only one not to make it home — only seventy-seven riders braved the hellish weather and fast racing of the weekend, with favourites Esteban Chaves, Dan Martin and Tejay van Garderen all suffering bad luck, bad lungs or bad legs somewhere along the way.
Then there’s the sprints, as we see Arnaud Démare making some fairly obvious MSR preparation with a sprint win on the uphill finish in Meudon, before winning the kick for fourth in Chatel-Guyon. His rival Nacer Bouhanni, sick, is a little way off him here. It was Dylan Groenewegen, however, who prevailed in the only flat sprint, which, along with his KBK win, must put him in the reckoning for La Classicissima.
Hmm, what else...oh! No Calmejane success for Direct Energie, but it’s very clear that they don’t need to solely rely on their talisman. Jerome Cousin’s controversial win is a topic in itself, but along with Hivert’s success two days previous, the bottom line is that this pro conti team is doing a fairly bad job of being pro conti, a job that usually involves a highest finish of twelfth and at least six DNFs, as the gap between top and bottom narrows, Direct Energie seem to be the most inbetween outfit in the sport.