Paris-Nice 2015: commentary
Observations on the 73rd "race to the sun", including the restoration of Richie Porte's credentials, Lotto-Soudal's refreshing success in an era of 'super teams', and a further demonstration of Michal Kwiatkowski's burgeoning suitablity for the Grand Tours
The 73rd edition of Paris-Nice was a race of two halves, but its dramatic conclusion is likely to live longer in the memory than its tedious beginning.
Might ASO look again at a parcours that, in its opening stages, indulged the sprinters at the expense of the spectator?
Will Richie Porte succeed to leadership of Team Sky at the Giro d’Italia, as had been planned last season, or has he merely proved himself indispensible to Froome’s ambitions for the Tour?
Do the heroics of Lotto-Soudal prove that in an era of cycling ‘superteams’, the likes of Astana and Etixx-Quick-Step will not have things all their own way? Or did Sky's ultimate victory provide further evidence of a football-style league within a league in cycling's top tier?
What evidence did this edition of the “race to the sun” provide to support the hypothesis that world champion Michal Kwiatkowski – formidable in the time trials, able to contain his rivals in the mountains, and race leader for five of seven days – might one day become a Grand Tour contender?
And whom will his Ettix-Quick-Step team back at the Spring Classics, following Tom Boonen’s exit on stage one with a broken collarbone?
Porte plots course through storm
Richie Porte has re-established himself in the first rank of GC riders for the shorter stage races. He displayed a mixture of grit and guile to win Paris-Nice for a second time, finishing metres ahead of team-mate Geraint Thomas at the summit of the Croix de Chaubouret on stage four and, like Thomas, survived a crash on the rain-slicked 14km descent into Nice on stage six, not to mention wild conditions on the Col d'Eze.
It says much for Porte’s reputation on the restored time trial (his victory there in 2013 was only four seconds slower than that managed by Bradley Wiggins a year earlier) that by winning to seal overall victory, he was only fulfilling expectations, both of himself and of the race: 24 of the 31 winners on the Col d’Eze have also claimed overall victory. He is a worthy winner.
Victory caps an impressive early season campaign for Porte that had already yielded the Australian national time trial title and a win at the summit of Old Willunga Hill, before returning to Europe to win the mountains classification at the Volta ao Algarve.
It remains to be seen if Team Sky will reinstate him as leader for the Giro d’Italia, his intended succession last season, before illness struck. He has, at the very least, given Brailsford and co a decision to make. Conversely, they may decide that he is too valuable to Chris Froome’s cause at the Tour to risk him in Italy.
Lotto-Soudal’s return to prominence was one of the more enjoyable sub-texts of the 73rd Paris-Nice. A sprint victory on stage two for Andre Greipel may not have been entirely unexpected but was impressive nonetheless, coming at the expense of Kristoff, Demare, Bouhanni et al. More enthralling were the stage five heroics of Thomas de Gendt, and more especially of Tony Gallopin on stage six.
The Frenchman's victory was sufficient to take the yellow jersey after a ride of real panache. He seized the initiative on the Cote de Peille and raced alone through treacherous conditions for the final 30km. The style of his victory added to its significance: the combination of skill and bravery marked it out as no ordinary ride. This was no desperado given leeway by a docile peloton; rather, Gallopin comprehensively outraced the leader and pre-race favourites, leaving the French press to hail him, already a stage winner and maillot jaune at last year’s Tour, among the best of a new generation of French stage race talent.
That such performances came in the jersey of Lotto Soudal is cheering for supporters of the underdog, or at least for those who fear a football-style, league-within-a-league in cycling’s top tier, where the richest teams buy up much of the established talent, leaving the lesser-funded squads to feed on scraps. In the case of Belgium’s "other" WorldTour team, proletarian neighbours of the lavishly funded Etixx-Quick-Step, overturning the odds is especially sweet.
A race of two halves
This season’s Paris-Nice began as an exercise in tedium and became a thriller. What might ASO learn? The reinstatement of the Col d’Eze after a year’s absence is a significant step, but a 6.7km prologue is neither flesh nor fowl: of no real interest to bona fide testers like Martin and Wiggins (though in the case of the latter, neither was the Col d'Eze) and depriving the race of a sub-text of changing leadership that might have illuminated the dull opening stages.
The sprinters were indulged to an unnecessary degree. Stages one, two and three were predictable, and Thomas de Gendt’s breakaway heroics were the only saving grace for stage five. The rolling parcours of stage four came as blessed relief. Stage six saved the race, but here the organisers can claim little credit: the spectacle owed as much to rain and Gallopin’s determination as the course.
Competitive scheduling offers little benefit to professional cycling’s audience, but, in the case of recent editions of Paris-Nice, at least offers the opportunity for direct comparison with Tirreno-Adriatico. This season especially, the French race has not been flattered by the comparison.
Tornado blown out
The fickle and frequently dangerous nature of bike racing means that the best laid plans of the sport’s top professionals are frequently scuppered by events beyond their control. Tom Boonen crashed out of the race on stage one, and will miss the Spring Classics for a second time in three years. Now 34, the blow is especially heavy. Advancing years and a blunting of the edge of his top-end speed has made Boonen increasingly a specialist in the cobbled Classics, whose season effectively ends with Paris-Roubaix.
While the blow dealt to Boonen will have been felt with almost equal severity by the thousands of Flandrians who line the bergs each Spring, there is some consolation for them in the fact that for Etixx-Quick-Step, the de facto national team in the cobbled races, has far from one card to play.
Niki Terpstra is now likely to go unchallenged, by his team-mates at least, in defence of his title at Roubaix, and may be granted leadership for Flanders, too. Zdenek Stybar however, might represent a more interesting choice for de Ronde, especially given his recent form. Stijn Vandenbergh (pictured above) is vastly experienced and made the running in 2013 before colliding with a spectator. The team is bigger than the man.
It could be argued that Michal Kwiatkowski got lucky on stage six of Paris-Nice, when separate crashes suffered by Sky duo Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas erased the lead they had gained on the Cote de Peille, but you make your own luck in bike racing and the race leader, no specialist climber, had ridden aggressively all day before the Sky duo finally gained an advantage.
The same can be said of his ride to the summit of the Croix de Chaubouret on stage four, where he ceded just eight seconds to the Australian winner. He was more then proficient in the time trials that bookended the race too: winning the prologue and matching the time of team-mate and decorated tester Tony Martin on the Col d’Eze to finish fifth on the stage and second overall. Overall victory in the best young rider classification is a timely reminder of his development.
All of this bodes well for those who hope to see the youthful world champion evolve into a Grand Tour contender, perhaps even to become the first to swap the rainbow stripes for the maillot jaune since Cadel Evans. Kwiatkowski has youth and the backing of the biggest team in the sport on his side. Against him is that he is unlikely ever to become a climber to match the specialists – he is diminutive and already lean – even if he has the potential to match team-mate Martin as a time triallist.
Victories in the three-week races would have to come the hard way for the world champion, one suspects, if they are to come at all. Kwiatkowski is a rouleur likely always to ship time in the mountains to the likes of Nairo Quintana. The Pole might always be reliant on tactics and determination: on minutes snatched in daring breakaways on rolling stages, in seconds saved through stubbornness alone on mountain passes, or by fearless descending, not to mention formidable time trialing. Rouleur as Grand Tour contender is an exciting role. Kwiatkowski has the skills necessary to play the part.