Tirreno-Adriatico had the names, the climbs, the crazy weather and quite possibly the bigger following but Paris-Nice remains my pick of the March stage races. Though I’ve frequently championed the Giro over the Tour, the Paris-Nice format usually delivers some cracking French racing and had returned this year to its better format. The race takes the riders from busy Northern France to the ‘Sun’ in the South. Here’s six reasons why you missed out if you didn’t follow this year’s race.
1. ‘Second tier’ riders animate the race
In 2013, Jacob Fugslang finished 7th in the Tour De France but did so without drawing much mention from commentators (aside from following Dan Martin home on Stage 9). The Dane will clearly be called upon to work for Nibali later this year, but races like Paris-Nice give him a chance to showcase his talents and lead the team. With team-mate Fabio Aru finding form, Fugslang was one of the first aggressors on Stage 4, eventually won by Richie Porte who himself is often Sky’s number two. Other riders like Michael Kwiatkowski, Simon Špilak and Movistar’s Izagirre brothers also have a chance to challenge for victory on these slopes. Some leaders, like Romain Bardet, may still be working towards Grand Tour victories, but for many riders Paris-Nice is a fabulous opportunity for some great racing and their best chance at World Tour success.
2. The French riders love it
Okay, so only Tony Gallopin brought home a French stage win this year and was the sole home rider with a top 10 finish. His Stage 6 win would have been the talk of the French papers who also fondly remember his day in yellow at least year’s Tour de France. French riders also placed 11th to 14th as the nation’s wait for another Paris-Nice winner continues, now 18 years since the beloved Laurent ‘Jaja’ Jalabert completed a hat-trick in 1997. Nacer Bouhanni would also have loved to have delivered for his Cofidis team but was short of team-mates when finishing second on Stage 1. Arnaud Demare was another looking for a stage win after he succeeded last year’s Stage 8 winner Arthur Vichot as French national champion. Oh, and Tommy Voeckler attacked all the time. It would be boring if he didn’t.
3. The mountain time-trial
We’ve seen great mountain time-trials as recent as the Giro last year, but it is the Paris-Nice organizers that use them the best. At the end of the week-long race, the beat-the-clock hill climb always makes sure interest it held to the very end. The Tour De France is in the process of reducing time trials to create more mountain battles- surely the inclusion of a mountain TT helps solves the problem? Lance Armstrong (yes, I’m acknowledging him) won a wonderful time trial stage up Alpe d’Huez in 2004 which could easily be brought back.
4. Michael Matthews brought back memories of the Giro d’Italia 2014
After taking the lead on Stage 3, Michael Matthews had the daunting task of defending the jersey in the mountains the next day. He probably wasn’t all that bothered, with goals lying elsewhere, but he stuck with the peloton as it reduced in size before dropping off the back on a particularly steep section. Those brief moments with the climbers brought back memories of his time in the Maglia Rosa at last year’s Giro. In particular Stage 6, where ‘Bling’ braved a final climb in Monte Cassino and not only kept his jersey but burst clear with Cadel Evans and Tim Wellens and took the stage in the most unlikely of sprint finishes.
5. Team Sky tactics
Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte continue to work well together following their success in the Algarve. Thomas seems the sort who is happy to work all day for his team leader, yet more often than not has the strength in his legs to finish in high places. In France, he attacked on Stage 4, weakening his rivals and setting things up for Porte. When the Tasmanian made his winning move, Thomas immediately latched on to his wheel for a Sky 1-2. Had Porte suffered a bad day, the thinking is that Thomas would have won.
6. John Degenkolb’s Stage 1 sprint
Giant-Alpecin have had a very up-and-down start to 2015. Marcel Kittel won the People’s Classic in Australia but has suffered a disappointing and virus-hit few months. Tom Dumoulin was reported to be ill before Paris-Nice, then went well in the Prologue and finished 15th on the hardest stage. He later abandoned. Simon Geschke looked to be going very well in Tirreno-Adriatico before suffering a broken collar bone. And then there’s John Degenkolb. He couldn’t quite get it together on the flat stages in Dubai but then won a superb uphill sprint. After being second-best to Juan Lobato in Andalucia, Degenkolb appeared once again to be finding form in France. So what exactly was great about Degenkolb in Paris-Nice? The fact he started his Stage 1 sprint too early, led, then faded to an obscure 15th. He later tweeted he needed his eyes testing before the next stage, having completely misread the 300m to go sign. He remains one of my favourites.
And one thing not to like…
Tom Boonen’s untimely injury.
On the first stage of Paris-Nice, Boonen fell harshly and was thought to have suffered a broken collar bone (the stock injury of Pro Cycling). Worse still, he was about to enter the biggest five or six weeks of his season in the Spring Classics. It is now being reported he may have ‘just’ a shoulder strain but only time will tell the full effects of the fall. He is not often found in Grand Tours any more and if he doesn’t recover in time (or if he does, but is not at his best) it will be interesting to see the new goals he sets for the season. Paris-Roubaix won’t be the same if Tom’s not there.