With March comes two of the first big UCI Stage Races of the Year; Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. Though the former has history and prestige, Tirreno-Adriatico’s route across Italy attracted a host of the best climbers. The ‘Race of the Two Seas’ started and ended with a time trial and contained a Queen Stage that ended in snowy scenes. Nairo Quintana won the stage and went on to win overall. Meanwhile in France, Richie Porte took two stages on his way to topping the general classification.
The 73rd edition of Paris-Nice started on March 8th and many were happy to see a return to the 2013 format; three flat stages, a summit finish, a couple more days climbing and a final time trial. The race this way always had a ‘mini Tour De France’ feel to it. Last year, the race consisted of a number of punchy stages which while not bad, were not Paris-Nice. This year we started with a Prologue and the short time-trial format is not best suited to the specialists making it much harder to predict. World Champion Michael Kwiatkowski won the stage and took a lead which some said he could hold to the end. Hour record holder Rohan Dennis placed second- the only highlight from his week- while John Degenkolb impressed in sixth. The flat stages looked massively competitive with 2014 Vuelta rivals Degenkolb and Michael Matthews both present, as was form sprinter Alexander Kristoff. Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare were looking for wins on home soil but Andre Greipel was the man to beat if he could shake off his poor condition. The first stage went to Kristoff who looked strong leading home Bouhanni. Degenkolb and Matthews had been looking for bonus seconds but didn’t have the speed to the line. Greipel disappointed in the first sprint but rewarded his team with a win the following day. The third day looked made for Matthews and he finished off a superb Orica GreenEDGE lead out. In doing so, he took the lead in the points competition and was never displaced. He actually took the race lead that day courtesy of bonus seconds but spent just one day in yellow as, despite his endeavours, he couldn’t hang on to the climbers on the Croix de Chaubouret.
Stage 4 was the ‘Queen Stage’ featuring the highest point of the race. It was a relatively easy day out until a difficult 10km climb which could easily have been a Grand Tour spectacle. A group of all the big names were together- bar Rafal Majka. The Polish mountain king fell away early on the slopes and never came back. Porte took the stage with a late attack but not before Geraint Thomas had jumped off the front with Jacob Fuglsang and Simon Špilak- all three men were showing good form. The trio opened a gap but, with not long left, Porte took flight and broke away from his rivals. When the Tasmanian passed the lead trio, Thomas jumped on his wheel and the Sky boys claimed a 1-2. Kwiatkowski had fared well, riding home third just eight seconds back, and re-took the race lead.
The next day was flatter and was expected to end in a bunch sprint. Davide Cimolai was given leadership duties for Lampre, over Niccolo Bonifazio, and proceeded to take the stage, digging deep to hold off Matthews. Stage 6 shook up the General Classification as Tony Gallopin escaped to win by 32 seconds from chasers Špilak and Rui Costa. After a day of climbing, Gallopin topped the final summit and descended 26km to victory. A group of the now race favourites followed him over the top- except Kwiatkowski who was paying for his earlier efforts and lost time. A final twist came on the descent with Team Sky’s Stage 4 heroes both parting with their bikes. Porte took a nasty tumble on a sweeping corner and Thomas went down a few turns later- as if wanting to join his team leader. To their credit, the pair finish 12th and 13th a minute behind Gallopin and conceding half that time to group-Costa. Gallopin and Lotto Soudal had got everything right and the Frenchman now had an outside chance of winning the race.
Two years ago Porte took apart his rivals on the final stage, the mountain time trial, and this year he repeated the feat. Tony Martin was an early leader before high placed climbers Špilak and Costa took the top spots. Porte was next man home and lived up to his split time by going 13 seconds clear. Gallopin, race leader and last man out, never looked comfortable and conceded not only the race but a podium spot. Bar his crash on the Côte de Peille, Porte was the best rider and a deserved winner.
Moving south we reach Camaiore and Stage 1 of Tirreno-Adriatico. The race overlapped with Paris-Nice and you could count on one hand the big names which weren’t in action last week. The opening stage was changed from a Team time trial to a ‘Prologue’ asking cycling’s least favourite question- if the first stage is now a Prologue is the second stage called Stage 1? Usually, yes, but due to the late change here, no. The win went to Adriano Malori ahead of rival Fabian Cancellara. The first stage proper was one for the sprinters but Cavendish, the favourite, was involved in a collision with Elia Viviani. The Italian rode into the back of him as he juddered to the right (the result of a mechanical- we think) and hit the deck bringing down a host of riders. Cavendish stayed on his machine but lost his footing and with it all momentum. Belgian champion Jens Debusschere sprinted home for victory and behind him, in second again, was Peter Sagan.
The Slovakian had been crying out for a win to end his streak of nearly-man performances and Stage 3 presented him with another brilliant chance. If organizers set about designing a stage for Sagan they would have been hard pressed to create something better than the one into Arezzo. Disappointingly, he found himself too far back and Greg Van Avermaet hung on for a win- ending his own streak of podium spots. In doing so he took the race lead for a day before the jersey changed hands again on Stage 4 when the race entered the mountains. Wout Poels kicked away on a steep climb and, with just a small gap over the top, descended to the finish. Chris Froome’s absence had given him a chance to lead the team and the Dutchman made good of his opportunity. The main contenders finished together, 14 seconds back.
The race was, effectively, decided on Stage 5. In treacherous conditions, 160 riders hauled themselves up Monte Terminillo and, although many complained about the snowy finish, it made for great watching from the warmth of my armchair. The white backdrop was made grey by officials who swept snowfall from the finish, but by the time Quintana rolled over the line arms raised, it had started up again. When Bauke Mollema kicked away from the chasers to finish second, the wind had picked up and snow was falling across the course. How some riders remained gloveless I will never know. Quintana, a Colombian in unfamiliar conditions, caught his rivals napping and burst away with brilliant acceleration. Mollema impressed to escape the rest, with Alberto Contador and Thibaut Pinot reluctant to make all of the chasing. The pair finished in a bunch of six- with Joaquim Rodriguez sprinting for third. Quintana had built a 40 second lead in the overall standings with positions second (Mollema) to fifth (Contador) split by less than half a minute.
Irish sprinter Sam Bennett rolled home last in the snow and tweeted his thanks to teammate Bartosz Huzarski for saving his ‘ass from the time cut… again’. The Bora Argon sprinter braved the stage to try his luck in the next day’s bunch sprint. It was the same reason Cavendish had suffered through but sadly the Brit lost ground early as a bunch featuring many sprinters were dropped and rolled in 11 minutes down. In fact ‘Cav’, and four of his teammates, abandoned the race in preparation for Milan-San Remo. Impressively, Bennett remained in the lead group but didn’t have the strength to challenge. The victory went to, at long last, nine months after his previous win, Peter Sagan. The Slovakian was delighted after the long, hard, and rainy stage. With the monkey off his back, we hope to see Sagan at his best in the coming months. He relaxed a little too much in the final time trial, finishing last.
The time trial offered very little change in the overall standings but saw Cancellara exhibit revenge on Malori, taking the stage by four seconds. Quintana performed sub-par and his lead was reduced to 19 seconds. Fellow Colombian Rigoberto Uran also disappointed, but hung on to third place, four seconds ahead of Pinot.
The final race to cover, from March 7th, is Strade Bianche. The Italian classic is one of the best arguments for establishing new one day races. It is proving it is possible for a brilliant classic to be introduced and hopefully it will develop a history like the Flanders or Ardennes races. It is notable for its unique white gravel roads taking it, for a short time, away from traditional road racing. It is fitting then, that Cyclo-cross champion Zdenek Stybar claimed victory. With him in the closing stages were Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde. The race swung into a town where a short steep stretch of road made Valverde the favourite. He lifted the tempo but cracked under Van Avermaet’s response. Stybar had kept calm behind and then accelerated past, claiming another win for Etixx-Quick Step.