What are the consequences for a race and a team when two team-mates are closely matched?
Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas could only be separated by a fag paper as they crossed the line at the summit of the 10km climb of the Croix de Chaubouret, and Sky must decide quickly which of them to back. Porte will feel he has earned the right by winning the stage, but Thomas is in fine form, having won the Volta ao Algarve and might believe that victory at Paris-Nice would present an insurmountable case for leadership in the cobbled Monuments.
Sky has experienced civil war before, of course, though neither Porte or Thomas would expect to be the team’s absolute leader, as has been the case with Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. The stakes are considerably lower here, too: Paris-Nice, historic though it is, does not come close to matching the prestige of a Grand Tour.
The team gave their strongest demonstration for some time on the slopes of Croix de Chaubouret, with Nicolas Roche in particular setting a ferocious tempo that shelled a host of established riders. Roche barely sat down before giving way to Thomas with 3km remaining. The Welshman promptly rode clear, pursued by Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, and Porte’s attempt to join him immediately was only thwarted by Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale). By joining Thomas immediately, Porte recognised that he would be bringing the talented French climber across the gap with him. The Australian hesitated, but ultimately did not lose.
Lost in the momentary exultation of victory was the knowledge that they had failed to dent the ambitions of race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step). The world champion gave another impressive display to remain within eight seconds of the black-clad duo and so was able to retain his yellow jersey by a solitary second from the rampaging Porte.
Impressive displays are almost routine these days from Kwiatkowski, who would claim his most significant stage race victory if he is still in yellow at the end of proceedings on Sunday. Tony Martin, his minder at last year’s Tour de France, was again the last of Kwiatkowski’s team-mates to remain with him, but was shelled with four kilometres remaining.
The remaining three stages are likely to continue a battle that is as intriguing for the struggle between Etixx-Quick-Step and Team Sky as its riders. Both of the peloton’s superpowers have made impressive starts to the season, but despite the greater volume of wins for the Belgian squad, Sky are likely to be the more satisfied, having claimed the more significant of the early season stage races, winning the Volta ao Algarve with Thomas and the Ruta del Sol with Chris Froome.
Victory at Paris-Nice for Kwiatkowski would be revenge indeed for the Belgian squad, after Ian Stannard up-ended their apple cart so effectively at Het Nieuwsblad. Only vigilance will be required from Etixx-Quick-Step on today’s 192km fifth stage from Saint-Étienne to Rasteau, but Saturday’s climb-laden affair will provide a stiffer challenge, and on the concluding timed ascent of the Col d’Eze, a scene of victory already for Porte, it will be greater still.