Richie Porte rides up the Col d’Eze. If he’d distanced his rivals on the Col de la Croix du Chaubouret midweek, his margin of victory was much greater in Sunday’s Col d’Eze time trial.
With the fantastic four and more heading to Italy this was the chance for a new name to emerge, for a young starlet to shine on the Côte d’Azur. Only we ended up with a repeat winner aged over 30.
The race started with a prologue that had all the ingredients of an ordinary time trial and Michał Kwiatkowski pipped Rohan Dennis by a fraction of a second. Lars Boom was fifth despite having raced the Strade Bianche the day before.
If Paris-Nice is a mini Tour de France this year’s edition resembled a “Jean-Marie Leblanc” Tour from the 1990s with a formulaic triptych of sprint stages. The midweek action was forgettable, hours of expensive live television for a few minutes of priceless action. Viewers were frustrated, ditto riders who spent hours in the saddle for little gain, not the pre-classics conditioning many wanted. ASO gambled on wind to provide the action for the opening stages but Mother Nature didn’t play: perhaps three flat stages was too much? For insurance purposes ideally you’d place an uphill finish tough enough to relegate the sprinters on Stage 2. Easier said than done but if the action doesn’t come, ASO must go to the action.
Still, the sprint finishes were instructive with Alexander Kristoff winning one stage, a mediocre haul after his exceptional start to the season but perfect to lower his profile ahead of Milan-Sanremo. André Greipel and Michael Matthews both won after superb team work. The Australian delivers high quality wins and took the yellow jersey for a day and finished the race with the points jersey. Meanwhile Lotto-Soudal had an even better week with two stage wins plus Thomas de Gendt’s mountains jersey.
By contrast the French sprint trains of Arnaud Démare’s FDJ and Nacer Bouhanni’s Cofidis ran out of steam, they were struggling to place their rider in the top-10 by flamme rouge. Démare was inconsistent and co-leader Arthur Vichot not in the same form as last year; at least Thibaut Pinot is delivering in Italy. Chez Cofidis Bouhanni lost his leadout man Geoffroy Soupe but this didn’t stop team manager Yvon Sanquer criticising other riders in public as the pressure seemed to get to the team. Europcar’s Bryan Coquard was valiant without much of a train.
Thursday’s Col de la Croix de Chaubouret was the big uphill test. Richie Porte won, helped thrice by Team Sky’s team tactics. First they set the tempo going up; second Geraint Thomas attacked and Porte could mark the moves before; third Thomas latched onto Porte’s wheel to mop up the time bonus for second place ahead of Kwiatkowski. Tejay van Garderen was thereabouts along with Rui Costa and Fabio Aru while Tony Gallopin was the surprise in the top-10. Gallopin is good and we can project to the Ardennes but probably not any higher altitude mountain stages.
Where were the young riders?
This was supposed to be an opportunity for some in the absence of the “fantastic four”:
- The best of the young pretenders was Michał Kwiatkowski, still 24, who had a very successful week: a prologue stage win, the yellow jersey for several days and a podium finish. It’d be greedy to ask for more and we should celebrate his willingness to attack on Saturday from afar: risky but it made the race come alive
- Tim Wellens was second on the young rider competition thanks to his aggression on Saturday, his stock is rising albeit from a mid-market level
- Fabio Aru dissolved in the rain on Saturday but he’s still easing himself into the season. Vinokourov can hold off from the warning letter for now, plus he’s got more to worry about right now.
- Wilco Kelderman punctured on Saturday but after 14th place in the prologue he never placed higher all week
- Romain Bardet was racing on home roads but truth is the course didn’t suit him, his lean limbs like steeper roads rather than big watts needed for Stage 4’s finish and the Col d’Eze. He’s now off to the Sierra Nevada for altitude training and the real test is the Volta a Catalunya
- The three biggest disappointments were Rafał Majka, Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen. Majka and Talansky both had mechanicals on Stage 4 and might have matched TvG but all three faded by the weekend. Still, it’s only Paris-Nice and all three will surely shine later this year although they’re not yet the certainty we’d hope for
The Giro got more interesting now that Richie Porte’s back to winning ways. Things fell apart last year when Porte was rivalling Andy Schleck for “DNS” and “DNF” mentions last spring and the summer brought mediocre results. Now a mountain stage win and a time trial win well for Porte’s chances in the Giro. But we already knew he could win one week stage races: he won Paris-Nice in 2013. Can he win beyond his back yard? The real question is whether he can hold up for three weeks? If he can’t win the Giro then Team Sky will hope he’ll sap Alberto Contador ahead of July.
Simon Says… Very Little
Katusha’s Simon Špilak bagged third place on the podium, bumping out the increasingly reliable Rui Costa by milliseconds thanks to a storming final time trial. It was something to celebrate after he thought he’d won Stage 6, crossing the line with an arm lifted in triumph. The stoic Slovenian is 28 years old and we don’t know much about him. Anecdotally he seems to thrive when the weather is bad but the truth is he’s won on hot day as well, he seems one of those who succeed in week-long stage races, his next goals are the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour de Romandie.
A share of the field have used the race as training. The good weather until Saturday has been an advantage but the idle opening three stages mean no hard training, a disadvantage. The greatest impact on the classics is likely to be Tom Boonen’s exit. Etixx-Quickstep can count on Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar but it’s not the same because Boonen brought the menace of a sprint. Take last year’s Paris-Roubaix where Terpstra was able to ride away in part because his rivals knew if they used up energy to reel him in they’d only tow Boonen to the line. Without Boonen Etixx-Quickstep will have to race differently.
Saturday’s stage saved the race from becoming a dismal procession punctuated by intermediate sprints book-ended by time trials. Gallopin’s win was impressive but the ups and downs of Porte and Kwiatkowski multiplied the drama even if it didn’t overturn the overall.
Porte wins the race for a second time. A repetition, a confirmation or a stepping stone to something bigger? He’ll hope for more than his 2013 season, a flourish Nice before resuming the role of luxury lieutenant. As well as a winner we had notable losers, riders who promise much have yet to deliver. Tirreno-Adriatico’s drawing to a close and the next stage race contest will be the Volta a Catalunya. Before that comes Milan-Sanremo. All roads lead to the Via Roma.