Things return to normal with a classic transition stage, 213km to take the riders south towards an inevitable sprint finish.
Stage 1 Wrap: a cold day on the bike with roads made damp by fresh snow. Team Sky hit the front with 45km to go and turned the stage into a spring classic, splitting the field and adding to the action long before the gravel started. Katusha missed the move but chased hard only for Alexander Kristoff to have a mechanical.
The second gravel section was hard work and the second time up Marcel Kittel was dropped out of the back. Geraint Thomas looked to be floating and Michael Matthews was at ease, covering his rivals. If there was a large bunch it was stretched out on the final gravel sector and the group coming into town never felt like a bunch thundering to the line. Edward Theuns took a late flyer and a long pull from Cannondale’s Paddy Bevin reeled him in, indeed the Kiwi seemed too strong for his sprinter Wouter Wippert. This closed the gap and with Ben Swift drifting across the road, Arnaud Démare took the direct route to the finish to collect the stage win.
Perhaps Hollywood would liven up the script by putting a few more GC riders in danger over the gravel but it made for an hour of action and already the stage is a candidate for highlight of the year. As much as we anticipated the gravel it was the wind that made the stage come alive.
The Route: after leaving the argumentative-sounding Contres, the riders face longest stage of the race with an early intermediate sprint to offer a little reward to any breakaways going up the road.
The Côte d’Estivareilles is a third category climb and if you’re used to the Tour de France’s system you might think this makes today’s climb a serious effort. But Paris-Nice only has three categories and the road up to Estivareilles is as easy at it gets. The road crosses the Loire river and runs straight up to the village, 1.7km at 6%. It keeps climbing after the mountains point but anyone dropped here wasn’t going to feature later on. Still this marks a point for any breakaway to aim for so that the escapees can battle it out for the 4-2-1 points available.
The Finish: they head into Commentry, cross the line and then go for a 17km triangle-shaped lap around the countryside. There’s not much to see – count the white Charollais cows if you’re bored – but open pastures means exposed terrain. Still the forecast says the wind will stay calm.
The run into the finish is uphill and seems to drag up more than the graphic suggests. It’s hardly advantage climbers but can might chew up a leadout train or two who expect to hit 60km/h all the way. The finish line is on a wide road and slightly uphill.
The Contenders: this is one of the two clear sprint finishes in the race and we can expect Etixx-Quickstep, Katusha, Lotto-Soudal and Cofidis to strive for this scenario. Good luck to a breakaway but even if powerhouses like Sylvain Chavanel, Thomas De Gendt, Alexis Gougeard and Niki Terpstra were all in the move it’s still hard to see them staying away.
Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff are the two top picks and there’s little to separate them. So we’ll go on past sprint duels and far more often than not when the pair have sprinted together it’s Kittel who has won. The slight uphill drag presents no problem for either of them, if anything it turns the finish into more of a straight test of power rather than rewarding aerodynamics. Both have reasons to make amends for yesterday’s stage with Kittel been blown out of the back on the final climb and Kristoff missing the main move and then getting a mechanical late in the day.
Nacer Bouhanni has made Paris-Nice a big objective and this is testimony to his ambition and straight talking. Not for him a “I’ll do my best” or “let’s take it day by day” which always makes an interview with him a refreshing read. However beating Kristoff and Kittel in a sprint seems a tall order. If he can do it à la pédale then he earns his place among the top sprinters.
As said yesterday André Greipel is recovering from injury and is sans Sieberg so his chances look reduced a little. Michael Matthews will be in the mix but has he got the raw power for a sprint? Today isn’t selective enough for him. Arnaud Démare will be feeling confident and the finish suits him too. He did win a race already this year but yesterday’s win at the World Tour level meant a lot more.
Team Sky’s Ben Swift was close yesterday but he’s a bit like Michael Matthews, he thrives on a hard day’s racing rather rather than a straight test of speed. Finally it’ll be interesting to see what Cannondale do. Paddy Bevin looked very good yesterday but perhaps today it’s all in for Wouter Wippert. He has won big but today is a bigger ask.
|Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff
|Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Démare, André Greipel, Michael Matthews
|Wippert, Swift, Lobato, Cimolai, Farrar, Bonifazio, Van Genechten, McLay
Weather: cold and dry. A top temperature of 5°C and little wind is forecast.
Local rider: theres Roger Walkowiak, the 1956 Tour de France winner and there’s a piece on him due here later today. For contemporary riders Julian Alaphilippe lives near the finish. He’s not from a family of cyclists, his father’s an orchestra conductor but cousin Franck was a decent amateur. Julian was an exceptional amateur, silver medallist in the junior cyclo-cross championships and a national title in the same field. He impressed by his versatility, in his last year as an U23 he won a mountain stage of the Tour de l’Avenir but also contested the bunch sprints he continued this all round ability in the pro ranks, coming close as a first year pro in the sprints of the Volta Catalunya before getting his first pro win in the Jura mountains of the Tour de l’Ain, beating Dan Martin who is now a team mate. It’ll be interesting to see how the pair combine in the Ardennes given Martin’s predilection for these races and Alaphilippe finishing second in the Flèche Wallonne and in Liège. Alaphilippe isn’t racing here, his plans having been setback by a bout of the mononucleosis virus. So if you want a local who might get in the day’s breakaway there’s Fortuneo-Vital Concept’s Florian Vachon.
TV: live coverage starts at 4.10pm Euro time and the finish is forecast for 5.10pm Euro time. It’s should be on the same channel you watch the Tour de France and/or Eurosport. If not then cyclingfans.com, cyclinghub.tv and steephill.tv all offer alternative feeds.