Are you sitting comfortably? On Sunday morning Marc Soler was sat comfortably in sixth place overall, wearing the white jersey of the best young rider under his rain jacket and had taken a strong second place in the Saint Etienne time trial earlier in the week. He’s a promising rider and was already in a very satisfactory position. Only it wasn’t enough for him and he took off on the steep climb to Peille with 47km to go and won the race overall.
The week began with a wet stage that saw Tejay van Garderen crash out and photofinish win for Arnaud Démare in Meudon, the kind of win that suggests he’s more a classics contender than a pure sprinter.
The sprinters had their turn the following day in Vierzon, nobody wanted to attack such was the inevitability of a bunch sprint. Dylan Groenewegen’s win was almost as inevitable, he’s establishing himself as a first division sprinter already this season and finished ahead of Elia Viviani to eclipse habitual Paris-Nice stage winners like André Greipel, Alexander Kristoff and Nacer Bouhanni.
Stage 3 to Châtel-Guyon featured a tough final climb and two contrasting riders. Having ridden over his home training roads Julian Alaphilippe stomped on the pedals to try and ride away from the field and it was exciting to watch and a demonstration of force but ultimately. Luis León Sánchez floated off the front just as the descent began, a stealth move that gave him the yellow jersey while Jonathan Hivert won the stage. Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere offered critical words of Alaphilippe about wasting energy in and out of the race but didn’t seem to want to criticise him for it all the same.
Wout Poels won the time trial around the industrial city of Saint Etienne and looked every bit like the prime pick for the GC. With hindsight Marc Soler’s second place was equally impressive, especially as he put 16 seconds into the Izagirre brothers and 22 seconds into Simon Yates which was going to count for plenty on the finish line in Nice.
The stage to Sisteron saw Pro Conti team Direct Energie – budget €6 million – triumph again, this time Jérôme Cousin outwitting Nils Politt in the final in a test of nerve rather than watts. It was a textbook example of how to outfox a rival – underhand would be to promise or even sell Politt the win, only to outsprint him – but Cousin’s comments post-stage enflamed matters although by the time he made them he’d been insulted by the Katusha staff already.
Rudy Molard took a “home” win in Vence, he’s moved to the Côte d’Azur and as a result targeted the stage but in his own words knowing the route only helps so much. Just ask Wout Poels, another adopted local up the coast in Monaco who might have known the roads but he still lost control on a corner and crashed out when he looked to be in prime position to win the race overall.
The “Race to the Sun” is a poetic label, not a climatic guarantee and the peloton faced a grim weekend on the Côte d’Azur. Saturday’s mountain stage was in a ski station and the wintry weather began long before they got there. The final weekend had its climbs and descents but what if wardrobe choices were as selective? Don too many layers and it’s boil-in-the-bag time for a rider or wasted watts with a flapping jacket but too few and in no time a rider is cold to the bone, energy waning.
Simon Yates got his wardrobe just right and the reward was a yellow jersey. Astana tried to pace the lead group up the climb to La Colmiane and if riders were being shelled plenty were huddling. Roman Kreuziger upped the speed and cracked Luis Leon Sanchez. Soon Yates attacked and only Ion Izagirre could follow with Dylan Teuns and Tim Wellens chasing hard. This put Yates in control but with a slender lead, seven riders within one minute on GC.
The final stage started in grim conditions. Would things heat up? This year there was no Alberto Contador to throw caution to the win. In 2017 and 2017 Contador had twice tried to turn the race upside down with a long-range attack to win the race overall and if he’d failed, he’d enlivened the stage and ennobled the winner. Marc Soler decided to try the very same move attacking on the Côte de Peille with 47km to go. He was 37 seconds down on GC in the morning, a small gap but ask Contador who’d been 15 and 31 seconds down in the past and still couldn’t convert an attack into the overall win. For one thing Soler was an unknown quantity, the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir winner and a promising rider but not someone to shut down immediately so perhaps he didn’t have to make such a violent attack to get clear. Still this was a brave move, he started the day sixth overall, in the white jersey and if fortune smiled why not aim for the stage win? Instead he was risking it all with a long range attack.
Soler did things his way. He was joined by David de la Cruz and caught Omar Fraile but the two stuck to his back wheel for much of his time, enjoying the prodigious shelter of his 1m86 build. Behind Roman Kreuziger had cracked and Chris Juul Jensen was yoyo-ing while Matteo Trentin did a huge job of work for Simon Yates. This was impressive by Trentin but the more he impressed the worse things got for his leader because few riders joined the chase and Trentin’s work was containing Soler but no more. This meant that once Trentin was used up Yates was going to be isolated.
By the time they got to the final climb it wasn’t clear who was going to win. The Izagirre brothers attacked taking Teuns and Wellens and Movistar’s Richard Carapaz with them and Yates was dropped. Was the Briton pacing himself or had he been cracked? Yates got back to the Izagirre’s but partly because of a crash. The brothers crashed on the descent of the Col d’Eze. In isolation the fall and the brief delay untangling their bikes cost them the race but presumably being down on the virtual GC forced them to take more risks on the corners?
Soler kept pushing on down the finishing straight and De la Cruz won the stage ahead of Fraile. He’d won the final stage last year too. The suspense lasted once the riders crossed the finish line. How far behind De la Cruz was Soler? Remember to add on the time bonuses Soler had earned. Then work out how far down the Izagirres and Yates finished. It took a moment to do the maths before Soler was confirmed as the winner.
Another cliffhanger on the final stage and some fine racing all week, Paris-Nice has been a highlight for the last two years and the 2018 vintage was just as good. Stalwarts tuning in all week might have found Monday’s stage dull until the final kilometres but that’s inevitable and it was disappointing to lose Wout Poels to a crash, especially as he could have been in the mix on the final Sunday without Team Sky having the race under lockdown because they never looked too strong, apart from the time they paced Poels back after a puncture late on Stage 3.
Did you notice the reduction in team sizes? It’s meant to be a theme this year but it wasn’t the UCI that made the difference, more the weather. Come Sunday afternoon and there were only 78 finishers and one curiosity for a future quiz is that UAE Emirates didn’t finish the race, Sven Bystrøm abandoned on the final day and if Sutherland valiantly made it to Nice he was outside the time cut and so officially DNF. Paris-Nice’s race to the sun is also a race of youth where young riders make a name for themselves. Simon Yates was looking set for the future only to see a rider a year younger than him hustle into the race lead while 26 year olds Teuns and Wellens bolstered their stage racing credentials.
What next for Soler? Literally it’s the Volta a Catalunya, his home stage race. Longer term it’s crowded at Movistar with El Tridente of Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa but Soler’s still serving an apprenticeship, he joined Movistar for 2015 and they didn’t put him in a grand tour until last year’s Vuelta. He will make a valuable lieutenant, just as Miguel Indurain once did for Pedro Delgado.