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Flying Too Close to the Sun: Paris - Nice Preview

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Race to the sun, my ass.
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There’s always a discussion around this time about which is the better race-- Paris - Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico-- as the peloton gets split between the two races. The consensus view is usually that TA is the better race-- it gets the better riders and has the better route. Here’s the thing, though. Anyone that still believes that has not been watching PN during the last three years. Each of the last three years has been a barn burner of a race, easily in contention for best week long stage race of the year as well as race day of the year and probably only losing out on those honors due to its placement on the calendar-- before the spring classics and all of the grand tours cloud our collective memories.

2016 saw Geraint Thomas take the GC victory over Alberto Contador by a mere 4 seconds and saw a vintage Contadorian attack on the last stage in which he ended up getting away from Thomas with 55 kilometers to go. However, Thomas managed to save the lead by doing something quite amazing for the pre-Tour-winner Thomas who had a reputation for crashing— a brilliant descent that found him coming to the finish a mere 5 seconds behind Contador.

2017 again saw an audacious and ultimately failed Contador attack on the last stage, this time with Sergio Henao the one feeling the Spanish pressure. This time on the final stage, Contador was 31 seconds behind Henao and attacked with 50 kilometers out, putting Henao on the defensive. Contador missed out on the stage victory to David de la Cruz, with those missing bonus seconds giving Henao the race victory by 2 seconds.

By 2018, there was a question as to whether the exciting racing was a product of the race course or of El Pistolero’s antics. But with Contador freshly retired, the 2018 edition served up another nail biting spectacle, this time putting Simon Yates in the Thomas/Henao position and casting Marc Soler in the Contador role with a special guest appearance from the Izagirre brothers. After the stage victory on the queen stage on the Valdeblore La Colmiane climb, Yates went into the final stage with an 11 second lead over Ion, a 12 second lead over Gorka, a 13 second lead over Tim Wellens, and a 37 second lead over Soler. It was fitting that in the Race to the Sun, a Soler event caused the ensuing dramatic finish. Julian Alaphilippe first attacked at the Contadorian point, with about 50 kilometers to go, and Omar Fraile soon joined him. Alaphilippe would not have the legs and would be dropped by Fraile.

The moment when Julian decided to never leave home without his rear-spray-protecting goatee again.
AFP/Getty Images

Soler and De La Cruz then bridged up to Fraile and the three ended up working well together, quickly establishing a gap over one minute to the Yates group. Behind them, the Izagirre brothers and Tim Wellens attacked Yates, with Yates struggling to hold on. On the descent toward the finish, the Izagirre brothers, in a good position to win the race, crashed into each other. Soler’s break mates end up gapping him near the finish, after Soler put in massive turns to try to hold the gap, with De La Cruz taking the stage. Meanwhile, Yates spent the rest of his matches to try to maintain his lead, but came up a mere 4 seconds short, leading to Soler succeeding where Contador had failed twice before.

The organizers have to be doing something right to produce three consecutive years of nail-biting, seat-of-your-pants racing. This is a race that has found its niche and has no need to return to the predictability of the Col d’Eze time trial deciding the victor. In comparison, what has Tirreno-Adriatico done lately? There was an exciting edition in 2016, but that was caused by the cancellation of the queen stage, allowing Sagan and Van Avermaet to fight for victory. Racing to the sun has simply been a much more competitive and exciting venture than racing to the sea.

Just for shits and giggles, here is how I would rank the current World Tour one week stage races:

  1. Paris - Nice
  2. Itzulia Basque Country
  3. Binck Bank Tour
  4. Criterium du Dauphine
  5. Tirreno-Adriatico
  6. Volta Ciclista a Catalunya
  7. Tour de Suisse
  8. Tour de Pologne
  9. Tour de Romandie
  10. Tour of California
  11. UAE Tour
  12. Tour Down Under
  13. Tour of Guangxi
  14. Getting hit by a motobike
  15. Having Richie Porte on your vds team
  16. Tour of Turkey

2019 Parcours

Stages 1, 2 and 3 are flat and for the sprinters barring a Cousin-playing-with-the-balls-of-Politt moment (forgot to mention that stage of last year’s race which added to PN being the best week long stage race of the year) or some bad weather.

Stage 4, which is 212 kilometers from Vichy to Pélussin, offers the first opportunity to open up some gaps by the punchier riders as it is up and down all day, though with 10 kilometers to go after the last classified climb, any time gaps are likely to be small and we should see a fight between the hardier fast men like Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli and the puncheurs such as Philippe Gilbert and Dylan Teuns.

Profile of Stage 4:

PN Stage 4 Profile

Stage 5 will be an individual time trial around the town of Barbentane, which will be the longest tt in a few years at 25.5 kilometers.

Profile of time trial:

TT profile

Despite the look of the profile, it’s also one of the flattest time trials in recent editions of this race. Riders will be on the big ring for most of that climb as it’s 2.5 kilometers at slightly more than a 3 percent average gradient, though there is a short section near the top of about a third of a kilometer at 8 percent as it reaches the Abbey Saint Michel de Frigolet.

The Abbey Saint Michel de Frito Lay, where the monks survive off the profit from the Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wings Doritos they make according to monastic principles.

The most difficult part of the time trial may be the final, as it takes the riders through narrow, windy roads as it rises at about a 6 or 7 percent gradient.

TT finale

Stage 6 will be a hilly 176.5 kilometers from Peynier to Brignoles, but with nothing too steep or too long on the agenda and might be a day for the more robust sprinters.

Stage 7 is the queen stage and will be a mountain top finish on the Turini pass, which includes an undulating profile before hitting the Col de Turini, which is listed as 14.9 kilometers at an average gradient of 7.3 percent. However, right before the Turini, the riders tackle the Cote de Pelasque, which is 5.7 kilometers at an average of 6.2 percent before a short 5 kilometer descent takes them to the base of the final climb.

Stage 7 profile:

PN Stage 7 Profile

Due to the Turini pass being close to many riders’ residences in Monaco, it’s been used as a training ride by many pro riders, with none other than Warren Barguil currently holding the Strava KOM on the climb.

It’s also a fixture on the Monte Carlo rally car circuit and looks like this when you climb with a motor:

Stage 8 will be the now familiar circuit around Nice which has delivered one of the most exciting days of racing during the last three years. Hopefully it delivers yet again after the race has had an average margin of victory of 3.3 seconds during the last 3 years.

Stage 8 profile:

Perhaps the organizers are getting a little too obvious?

So, the question is whether A.S.O can get a fourth year in a row of excitement out of basically the same course design. The secret sauce has been in making sure that it is a close race coming into the last stage. This year, I’m worried that the time trial might be a little too long (and too flat) and the Col de Turini a little too hard and that we won’t see those tight time gaps necessary to produce the thrilling finale. At this point, the teams should know what to expect. which you’d think, may make the race a little more predictable. Still, you can’t blame the race for staying the course with the outcomes realized during the last three years. Let’s just hope they (and we) don’t get burnt by the sun.

The Flight of Icarus, alternative title: Richie Porte at the Tour de France (yeah, I know, this would have worked much better if Richie didn’t pull out of PN)

The Sprinters

The sprinter hierarchy of 2019 is yet to work itself out, but this race should help. Dylan Groenewegen, who has often looked the fastest and has a strong Jumbo-Visma team backing him up is here. Contending for a place in top group of sprinters of 2019 will be Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Arnaud Demare and Fabio Jakobsen. Jakobsen already looks ready to prove that his 2018 season was no fluke after taking a victory in Algarve over the likes of Demare and Ackermann and has the Quickstep juggernaut backing him up. Bennett won in the final stage of the UAE tour, beating out Gaviria, Viviani, and Ewan. Ewan has looked strong this season, but his only victory occurred on the Hatta Dam stage of the UAE tour-- not exactly a bunch sprint. So far, he’s had a bit of a Napoleon complex in the bunch sprints-- we’ll see if that aggressive nature starts to pay off. Demare took a pair of second place sprints at Algarve before pulling out with illness, which prevented him from participating in opening weekend. His 3 year streak of opening stage victories may be at risk.

Besides those sprinters, the premier Norwegian lead out man-- Alexander Kristoff-- will get an opportunity to ride for himself. Andre Greipel will be sprinting and trying to earn Arkea Samsic an invitation to the tour. Matteo Trentin, Michael Matthews, Sonny Colbrelli, and Magnus Cort are on hand for some of the tougher stages that may end in a reduced sprint. Other pro-conti sprinters include Christophe Laporte, Niccolo Bonifazio, and Bryan Coquard. Mark Cavendish is also here and looks primed to get a top 20 placing in at least one of the stages. Also, just announced was that Marcel Kittel will be here instead of in TA (which likely doesn’t have many sprint stages). We’ll see if he can get himself back in the top rank of sprinters this year.

The GC Contenders

The start list this year is deeper than usual, even after Porte dropped out with an illness. The only missing big names are Froome, Dumoulin, Roglic, Nibali, and Pinot. That may be due to TA having a course suited to the classics riders this year (though Dumoulin, Roglic, Nibali and Pinot did not seem to get this message, as they are lining up at TA).

There are 3 former winners lining up— last year’s champ, Soler, Sergio Henao, and... wait for it... LL Sanchez. (Movistar, unfortunately, decided to not make it 4 prior winners by leaving Betancur back at the buffet). I don’t think that any of them can add a second victory to their palmares. Soler’s form is unknown after an anonymous showing at Tour Columbia and after his 2018 win, it’s unlikely the peloton will give him as much leeway as they did last year. Henao looked decent in his home race, with an 8th place overall, but will not like the longer flatish time trial included in this year’s course. With our luck and Astana’s run of success, LL Sanchez probably will win, but you’d be correct in assuming that the Turini climb should put him out of contention.

As to the overall favorite, it’s hard to look past Simon Yates, who appears to be on a course to avenge all of his second place finishes last year as he returns here and to the Giro. He was supposed to be at the Ruta del Sol earlier this year to support his brother and get some training miles in, but just happened to have a strong time trial, finishing 8th on the stage, as well as ripping one off on the queen stage and leaving the others behind in his miasmic wake.

The flying Izagirre brothers return as well for some vengeance, this time riding for a different oil rich despot regime. The rapping, stage-race=winning Stanis perhaps have the strongest team, which includes the brothers Izagirre, LL Sanchez, and other potential race winner Superman Lopez.

The Stanis do not have the only Colombian superhero in the race, as Movistar brings Superman’s arch-nemesis Nairoman, who will attempt to throw Superman into the sun like a bag full of nukes. Quintana’s form seems to be ok after he put paid to all of the young whippersnappers’ stage win ambitions in Columbia on a climb that’s not dissimilar to Turini.

It appears we may be in for a Tour Columbia rematch of sorts (minus Sosa) as Sky brings Egan Bernal as their leader, with typical strong support from the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski and Stage 8 expert David De La Cruz. While Bernal is slated to line up as the leader for Sky at the Giro and has the hopes of many fans as the next great grand tour winner, the question remains over his time-trialling ability. Sure, he won Columbian National TT Championship last year, but that’s sort of like winning a Mensa competition at the current White House. He also finished first in the Romandie TT last year, but that was an uphill TT. What he does on Stage 5 will be informative.

Tour Columbia (French version) continues with Team maybe-not-so-Ef’d-this-year bringing both Rigoberto Uran and Daniel Felipe Martinez. Both were impressive in their home race, though neither will be thankful for the longer time trial.

Romain Bardet will be returning for the first year since his disqualification in 2017 for pulling a Nibali with his team car. He’s looked on form (though it’s rare that he doesn’t) after a 2nd at Haut Var, as well as top 10 finishes in both French SSR one day races. AG2R also have deluded-grand-tour-superstar Tony Gallopin as a second option.

Neo-cobble specialist Bob Jungels will look to transform himself back into stage racer Jungels, and the parcours is not a bad one for him with a longish time trial, though Turini may be a climb too far.

Wilco Kelderman will also like the course this year and was climbing well in the UAE Tour. He’ll only have the assistance of the Sunweb B team, however, as Doom has the A team over in Italy.

Other riders will be looking to get their careers back on track. Ilnur Zakarin’s career has had the arc of a Katusha missile in its final stage, but the course (except for the descents on the last day) would seemingly suit him. Has Esteban Chaves finally gotten over his troubles? I’m not even sure what those troubles were, and it feels like an awfully long time since he was on those grand tour podiums. Fabio Aru will be using PN as training for the Giro, which he will be using for training for the Vuelta, which he will be using for training for his eventual demotion to Bardiani next year. Warren Barguil has looked pretty good during the opening races of the season, but we’ll see if he can continue to look good against tougher competition.

AFP/Getty Images

Rider Rankings:

Red Hypergiant Star: Simon Yates

Red Supergiant Stars: Egan Bernal, Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez

Red Giant Stars: Ion Izagirre, Gorka Izagirre, Rigoberto Uran, Romain Bardet, Wilco Kelderman

Yellow Dwarf Stars: Sergio Henao, Marc Soler, Bob Jungels, Daniel Felipe Martinez, Sergio Henao,

Red Dwarf Stars: Warren Barguil, Patrick Konrad, George Bennett, Dylan Teuns, Domenico Pozzovivo, Giulio Ciccone, Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Gallopin, LL Sanchez, David de la Cruz

Black Holes: Fabio Aru, Ilnur Zakarin, Esteban Chaves, Tejay van Garderen