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No, Not Tirreno. You Know, the Other One

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Stage 5 - Paris-Nice Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I’m going to start this with a confession. When I made the decision of which race I’d write about over the coming week, I was fairly ignorant about who was riding where. I picked Paris-Nice over Tirreno-Adriatico because, as I assumed parity of startlists, I prefer the idea of the French race. The “Race to the Sun” idea it has going on, in addition to the close finishes in recent years, has endeared it to me, perhaps more than its Italian counterpart. It was with a heavy heart then, that I read the startlist and sighed “Oh Christ, this is bloody weak.” And weak it is. It was Alberto Contador who forced those close finishes, don’t forget, and he’s as likely to do that again as Seán Kelly is. And so, this year Paris-Nice gets the B-listers. Sergio Henao won last year, taking the official title of King B-lister, but he’s by no means guaranteed to hold on to his crown, even in a weaker field than the one he beat out last year. You know it’s bad when I don’t think I’m being stupid for saying that his biggest challenge might actually be Dan Martin.

Or it would be, if not for what will possibly be the pivotal stage — the individual time-trial, the existence and timing of which is an abomination of the highest order. There are two places for time-trials of significant length in week-long stage races. The second-best place for them to be is at the end, to hang over the heads of the spindly climbers and prompt them to attack. Used in this way, they can be powerful and fascinating. They can even, if they use the correct climb, get through scrutiny on the grounds of tradition. By far the best place for them, however, is on the cutting-room floor in the office marked “Course Director.” This is because they simply manage to disimprove everything about a week-long stage-race. Every bonus second should matter in terms of GC position. The Volta a Catalunya does this well — it shies away from time-trials.

Now, I understand that Paris-Nice has a tradition of time-trials, but I have the further understanding that that time trial was on the Col d’Eze as any time-trial in a self-respecting race calling itself Paris-Nice should be. And yeah, it can be a bad way to end the race if you’ve got a dominant rider, but if you’ve got a dominant rider, that guy’s probably going to win anyway. When you have Seán Kelly trying to pry himself away from Duclos-Lassalle or whoever it was, in order to get a buffer (or any modern-day equivalent), it’s a brilliant way of finishing it. Which isn’t even relevant because it’s not the Col d’Eze we’re dealing with, it’s a pointless eighteen-kilometre nonsense around Saint-Etienne that looks like this.

There’s eight kilometres at a three-and-a-half per cent gradient, a slight descent, and flat to the finish. And I can’t tell if this whole situation is made worse or better by the fact that there aren’t even any real time-triallists among the GC contenders. Like, there’s Ion Izagirre and Tejay van Garderen. [Insert positive nonsense about Van Garderen here], while Ion Izagirre will hope to belatedly kick on from his days as Movistar after a first free year that was hardly wildly successful. But the main beneficiary from this test should be Wout Poels, who acquitted himself well in the comparable time-trial in the Vuelta a Andalucia, and is probably the best time-triallist in the part of the Venn Diagram entitled “Won’t Completely Flop on the Climbs.” He’s on the same team as Henao, but if you’ve heard him talk in the last week, I think he’s expecting help from the Colombian. Help he probably deserves. He’ll probably have a few seconds on everybody important with the mountains to come, and his team has always been good at defending a lead.

This lead will have to be defended in the mountains. Stage five might be decent if there were another lap. Here it is. Some guy, the identity of whom I won’t yet insult you with trying to predict will probably win it solo and have his win proceed to be forgotten about twenty minutes later.

Stage six is where it really gets interesting, and where Dan Martin will presumably try and inch back the ninety years he’ll lose in the time trial.

Vence is a hotbed for Paris-Nice, even if this stage avoids its famous Col. Instead it goes bloody mental with the climb categorisation system, calling a two-kilometre hill a first category climb. Which I will quietly seeth over for the majority of the week. Anyway, the last eight kilometres looks like a great place for an attack to stick, but probably not a great place to win the race overall. So wait for Martin to burn all the matches here.

Anyway, stage seven uses the (now obligatory for Paris-Nice apparently) kind-of-rubbish long summit finish, required because no pro really wants a proper, steep Col at this point in the season, in addition to the fact that most of them presumably resemble my back garden at the minute. So over the last four years we’ve had the Croix du Chaubouret (average gradient under seven per cent), the Madone d’Utelle (under six per cent), the actually kind of decent Col de la Couillole (around seven) and this year the Valdeblore la Colmiane.

Gotta say...I’m not a fan. It’s around six per cent most of the way, for over sixteen kilometres. It looks like a real tempo climb, and while the new seven-man teams might put a bit of a hole in that, if there’s a headwind this could be a mountain finish to forget. Oh yeah, and Julian Alaphilippe will probably be in yellow going into this stage. There will be a large argument about whether he can hold on to the jersey. He will then proceed to do a very good job of not holding on to the jersey.

Hopefully the race will sufficiently break apart however, because there will be a good few riders with incentive to attack. Fuglsang, Martin, Chaves and all the French climbers (minus Bardet, who’s either gone to Tirreno because he wants to do Strade or because it’s where all the cool kids are at, and minus Pinot, who’s apparently taken up cross-country skiing. Well, even the stars can catch Olympic fever) are all going to be a good few seconds behind with limited opportunities to take them back. However, Sky will have strength in depth that can neutralise these moves. I can see

Paris-Nice - Stage 6
Three or four guys sprinting out the win on top of the climb.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

That should hopefully leave the race in the balance for the final stage, which will sorely miss the presence of the doomed Contador attack.

The Col d’Eze does make an appearance, though from the wrong side, and in the absence of Contador the final moves should probably wait till the Col des Quatre Chemins, towards the end of the hundred and ten kilometre day. If Poels or Henao is in the yellow jersey, Sky will struggle to control the race, so it will be interesting to see if they send each in moves or just pull on the front. Having co-leaders seems a very useful tactic for this stage especially, so for their sake I’d hope that they would not burn either rider during the race. If this does turn into anarchy, the race’s eventual winner may not be decided until the final few metres.

Oh yeah, and this race is longer than five days, I just didn’t see stages one through three as particularly relevant. There won’t be the crosswinds of last year. Here they are if you’re interested.

Uphill finish, no wind to speak of, Alaphilippe.

ASO wanted to see Vesoul, it saw Vesoul. Now it wants to see Vierzon. This is the only sprint day, so it’s weird that all the sprinters are here. Groenewegen.

Ya see why I said Alaphilippe would be in yellow? Yeah. Mind you, this might be less selective than it looks. Or the climb rating system is even more mental than I thought. Démare, maybe?

So yeah, anyway, I think this looks like a good race for Wout Poels. He’ll probably have at least thirty seconds on the majority of the people who’ll challenge him on the climbs by the end of stage four and with a strong team behind him, he looks like a formidable proposition. The man who beat him in Andalucia, Tim Wellens, is a tempting choice, but a sixteen-kilometre climb might be beyond him. It’s a preview by me, so I’m always going to mention Martin, who seems to be on a decent trajectory based on the Volta ao Algarve, but a podium place is more likely to be his limit. Something similar goes for Jakob Fuglsang. Izagirre...there’s no real reason why he can’t win other than a nagging feeling that he won’t quite stand up to the others when it counts. Also look out for young talents Marc Soler and Sam Oomen, neither of whom will be found entirely wanting in the time-trial.

Poels to win however, I say. Fuglsang and Martin for the podium. Tirreno, however, will be the race to which I’ll pay more attention.