Geraint Thomas crosses the finish line in Nice. It was only at this moment that the result became clear to spectators as the clock on the gantry showed only a few seconds had elapsed since Alberto Contador had crossed the line. Thomas appears to be smiling above but it wasn’t until he’d come to a stop that he knew for sure he’d kept his jersey and won Paris-Nice.
There’s a splendour on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice with its five star hotels, luxury boutiques and palm trees. It’s opulent, comfortable and a place to stroll. Walk and every now and again you can see past the buildings and glimpse the hills behind. It’s there and beyond that the race was fought and the arrival in Nice always feels out of place for a race that spent a week travelling through boarded up villages, over gravel roads, blasted by crosswinds and soaked by sleet. For once it’s better to arrive than travel.
The suburban prologue provided an instant hierarchy which lasted for much of the week thanks to Michael Matthews’ surprise ride. He took the prologue by less than a second from Tom Dumoulin and then extended his lead during the week by grabbing time bonuses. Matthews has the Midas touch in his legs and seems to win high quality races just when it matters.
Stage 1 had the gravel roads but it was the wind that featured first. With 45km to go Team Sky set about splitting the race up. Things regrouped but it meant a harder stage, a spring classic inside a stage race. Arnaud Démare won from a long sprint while Alexander Kristoff was delayed by a mechanical and Marcel Kittel by his legs on the grinding finishing circuit.
Both star sprinters missed the target this week and André Greipel was still recovering from injury. If Kristoff could cite a mechanical once he was beaten in the sprints on other days too and ended the week looking less than imperial. It left the door open for Nacer Bouhanni who promptly tried slamming it on Michael Matthews in one finish as they tussled for the stage. Matthews magnanimously shook hands over this.
Others had shaking hands for the wrong reasons. It was a very cold start to the race. Ironically France had enjoyed its warmest winter since 1900 only to regress back to winter during the week of this race and riders endured several days of wet weather with temperatures of 2-5°C, grim conditions to ride 150-200km a day: the equivalent of a five hour acquabike session in an ice-bath. Things went from bad to worse when Stage 3 got cancelled midway, the forecast rain turned to snow and the race was stopped as it reached the high point of the Beaujolais hills. The missed Mont Brouilly finish can be regretted because it’s a good little climb that’s made for TV.
Finally the sun came out as the race reached the Rhone valley. With the sunshine logo on his Cofidis jersey Nacer Bouhanni took his stage. Alexey Lutsenko bearing the Kazakh flag which includes the sun too pulled off a solo 30km break to take a stage too. Not for nothing is he nicknamed the baby Vinokourov given his squat style and aggression, we’re bound to hear more about him later this year.
The stage to the Madone d’Utelle sanctuary was selective but not decisive. In the morning 32 riders were within one minute of the yellow jersey; it was down to ten after the stage with Geraint Thomas taking the overall lead after Tinkoff had set to work and the final stage Majka rocket was used to launch Alberto Contador. It was an uphill sprint with Majka accelerating and leading out Contador who launched his attack which reduced the group. Sergio Henao was invaluable for Geraint Thomas and in the end Ilnur Zakarin, the Stork of Tartarstan, took the stage win after tracking the lead group. It was a confirmation after his surprise riding in Romandie last year, the Russian’s big goal is the Giro and this year’s route suits him.
Stage 7, Nice-Nice, 134km
It set up the final stage for action and the terrain was perfect: a short stage packed with climbs. Alberto Contador only needed 16 seconds but set off on the attack with 45km to go. Madness? Maybe but it premeditated. The breakaway up ahead contained two Tinkoff riders and Contador was executing what we could call a “relay attack” up the Col de St. Pancrace. The idea was to bridge across and have two team mates waiting to help him. It forced Team Sky to chase and if they brought Contador back it meant that by the time they got to the Col d’Eze they’d used up riders and Thomas was tiring.
Majka did another sprint-style leadout for Contador to attack. Is this move going to become a thing on the long mountain passes or is just suitable for smaller, gentler climbs? As Contador jumped with the carnivorous rictus that reveals his full effort only Richie Porte could follow. Over the top the two picked up breakaway survivor Tim Wellens. Behind Geraint Thomas cracked, Sergio Henao was invaluable.
On the descent Tony Gallopin joined in the chase. It surprised some but it turns out “G” and “Gallo” share a love of rugby and, speaking to Eurosport, Thomas said he had even invited the Frenchman to watch the rugby World Cup in Wales last year. Gallopin never went but as they hurtled down the corniche he needed no invitation to chase. Besides he had every interest to help too given his top-10 place overall depended on it and, had the group up ahead caught the lead trio with Wellens then Gallopin was the stronger option for a sprint win.
Slowly the gap began to fall with Wellens sitting on the front move but it wasn’t until the final metres that it was clear Thomas had saved his yellow jersey. Wellens won the stage and Thomas saved the day.
In a race decided by four seconds – the closest winning margin was three seconds 2008; in 1973 four seconds seperated Poulidor and Zoetemelk – Alberto Contador might rue the split in the bunch that cost him four seconds in Commentry at the end of Stage 2. Everything else being equal this wouldn’t have changed things because the race would have gone back to the prologue times and the hundredths of a second and Thomas was ahead on 0.79 seconds and Contador on 0.92.
Another vintage edition with action and drama all week long. After 1,290km the result was not certain until the final 50 metres. If the race was a Hollywood script the scenario would sounded contrived. The scrapped Mont Brouilly stage contributed to the second closest winning margin in the race’s history as it kept the riders more grouped than planned.
Thomas was the clear winner and tested along the way, sprinting for time bonuses on the flat stages putting his team to work in the crosswinds. But he held on with help from Henao and friends. While Wiggins and Froome were on their way to the Tour de France and Richie Porte selected as team leader for the Giro, Thomas himself is more modest for now. He’s said himself he’ll back Froome in July and see where things stand in a year or two.
Alberto Contador tried hard and should take satisfaction from his riding. L’Equipe made the point on Sunday morning that even if Alberto Contador wasn’t going to win then he was bound to try and this would only improve the race and make Geraint Thomas look better. Thomas wins the race but also beats Contador and Porte in the process. Contador ennobled and enabled the racing, he was more than the catalyst to the action but a defining part of it. But as he thinks of July there might be the nagging feeling that he couldn’t beat Chris Froome’s domestique.
Next up… As well as Saturday’s Milan-Sanremo thoughts will now turn to the Volta a Catalunya starting this time next week. The fourth oldest stage race in the world hasn’t had top billing for some time even if it’s provided excellent racing recently as well as some snow too. The Alt de Molina and the Port Ainé 2000 ski station host the two big mountain summit finishes. How about this for an A-Z of riders: Aru, Barguil, Bardet, Contador, Dumoulin, Froome, Gesink, Hesjedal, Lopez, Kelderman, Majka, Porte, Quintana, Rodriguez, Talansky, Thomas, Uran, van Garderen and Zakarin. And that’s just the GC contenders.