It will take you two seconds to read this sentence. That was the winning margin Sergio Henao held over Alberto Contador after a thrilling thrilling week of racing where the result in suspense until the end.
Was there a winning moment? Alberto Contador could spend another week going back over the moments he lost a second here or there, that time bonus on the Mur de Fayence taken by Henao, th lack of a team mate up the road on the final stage and why did Ion Izagirre pull so hard on the descent into Nice? This was a rich race full of action that it’s impossible to reduce to one moment.
On paper the opening stage looked like a circuit race to ease into the race and promote the Yveslines regional government paying for the start. The wind blew this paper away as well as the chances of many overall contenders. Rain and crosswinds split the peloton apart on the first two days and Arnaud Démare was the winner, taking the first stage after being the only rider left who could follow Julian Alaphilippe’s uphill attack and then holding the yellow jersey for several days thanks to an attentive FDJ team. French rivals Ag2r La Mondiale didn’t have it so good with Romain Bardet disqualified for a “sticky bidon”, pro cycling’s euphemism for cheating. Bardet handled the issue with a concise mea culpa. Not for nothing did his masters degree included work experience in communications and social media.
Sonny Colbrelli (he’s named after a Miami Vice character, true story), found an ember of warmth left inside to win the sprint after a dismal day for the riders but an exciting one to follow for all the accounts of the peloton being scattered into small groups, a big win for Colbrelli and his team and another name to add to the long list of contenders for Milan-Sanremo as our thoughts turn to the race. Richie Porte lost the race this day as he went like a hobo from one group to another in search of shelter.
Sam Bennett took a surprise stage win, he’s been due a big win the quality of the opposition here only made his triumph bigger as he finished of Kristoff, Degenkolb, Kittel, Matthews, Démare and Greipel in a straight speed contest. Two days later André Greipel took a sprint win to prove his consistency and reliability.
The race returned to Mont Brouilly after last year’s snowfall cancelled the stage. It was a good decision to return with a time trial as it offered a balanced course, some flatter roads through the vineyards before the awkward climb to the top of Mont Brouilly. Alaphilippe took an emphatic stage win and the yellow jersey because he’d been in the front each time the race had split. It was the manner of his win that surprised: he was the fastest on the flat roads which was unusual for a young rider who is also 63kg; then he held his own on the climb and won the stage by 19 seconds on Alberto Contador. For reference Sergio Henao was eighth at 48 seconds and Dan Martin 13th at 63 seconds.
The Mur de Fayence saw Simon Yates win the stage and Alaphilippe surrender 12 seconds to Henao, not much in isolation but beaucoup in less than one kilometre on the eve of the crucial summit finish. Alaphilippe duly cracked and lost the overall lead on the Col de la Couillole the next day. An irony is that if ASO had designed a classic route without the high altitude finish and its 15km climb then quite possibly the French would be triumphantly welcoming the first home winner of the race since Laurent Jalabert 20 years ago. Still Julian Alaphilippe finishes the week a greater rider than when he started. He began with a second place to Démare on the opening stage, yet another, but this is still a learning experience for a 24 year old who finishes the week with a time trial stage win, a spell in yellow and the points competition. Being French the inevitable question is can he win Le Tour? Non right now although this year’s course with fewer mountains than usual will pose a dilemma: a high GC or stage wins?
A big summit finish can dominate the race, the fear that a long climb establishes an unshakable pecking order that merely renders all future racing a repeat but fortunately the Couillole managed to enliven the race and mix-up the overall classification with one day to go. Jarlinson Pantano savaged what was left of the lead group and if Porte took the stage win, Alberto Contador took back 11 seconds on Sergio Henao and gained confidence he was climbing faster.
Richie Porte’s stage win mattered in its own right because he left a pile of contenders behind and set a very fast time up the climb. We know he can climb fast but confirming this will reassure him. Perhaps the greater reassurance went to his team because despite the setbacks of the second stage he bounced back. For the arithmetic record if it wasn’t for those crosswinds he’d have finished on the podium if everything else stayed equal.
The final Sunday came and Sergio Henao started the day in yellow with 30s on Dan Martin and 31s on Contador. What could Contador do? Not for him a tour of the Nice arrière pays however enjoyable the roads might be. But how to beat Henao? A late attack on the Col d’Eze would be too late, there was not enough time to take 30 seconds and besides the climb is regular and the kind where following the wheels helps. It would have to be the climb to Peille, with its 10% sections and so many twists that a rider can quickly get out of sight. But with 50km to go? It’s the sort of thing Contador does when others don’t. It was obvious in both hindsight and foresight but Contador still did it and he still dropped Henao. He did it last year too but crucially then he’d sent riders up the road to act as relay points and this time as Contador overhauled the early breakaway he didn’t have a team mate waiting to help, a luxury surely worth a handful of seconds? Behind Sergio Henao had two team mates in his cousin Sebastian and David Lopez but they could only hope to contain Contador’s lead and they blew by the time they reached the Col d’Eze.
The race has abandoned the Col d’Eze time trial, presumably because it’s a ratings flop – time trials always are – yet Contador and Henao were each locked in their own private TT up the climb, albeit with a string of riders sitting on their wheel. Contador “won” the uphill TT and stretched his lead to beyond a minute over the top of the Col but the long descent doesn’t a lone rider. In fact Contador wasn’t alone but two compatriots were of little use, Marc Soler and David De La Cruz didn’t offer any Hispanic help. Soler tried a solo move, De La Cruz won the stage. Behind Ion Izagirre was chasing hard and it’s hard to know why, perhaps an assist for his brother Gorka to contain the group so his fourth place wasn’t troubled, perhaps an old-fashioned deal where Henao could pledge a share of the prize pot if the win was secured?
The clock counted down but it wasn’t so simple as Contador had taken time bonuses in an intermediate sprint and at the finish line so when Henao came in 21 seconds later many were doing their calculations and frantically looking up the milliseconds awarded in the Brouilly time trial. Henao won, just and by two seconds which is the narrowest ever victory margin in this race.
On a team loaded with leaders Henao took his chance, helped by the late withdrawal of Wout Poels. He’s an infrequent winner, in part because he’s a worker on Team Sky but also because he’s had his share of mishaps and more. He was out of action after smashing his kneecap to smithereens in the Tour de Suisse and he was off racing twice when rested, parked or suspended following two investigations into his blood values and cleared each time. We’re still waiting to read the promised science paper written on the back of this and he says he’d gladly publish his bio passport data and we’ll see if the oft-promised glasnost at Team Sky happens.
Another vintage edition. The beauty of the race is its geographic range: the ability to start in northern Europe and late winter and to proceed south towards the Mediterranean where spring is in full bloom. Next weekend’s Milan-Sanremo does something similar but Paris-Nice has a week to explore the terrain with stages past empty cereal fields, through vineyards and over substantial mountain passes meaning there’s ample opportunity for exciting racing along the way and variety too. But the route is only one ingredient, this year’s weather turned two formulaic opening stages into anthological demonstrations of crosswind racing and Contador turned the final stage into a box office cliffhanger. Once again Contador ennobles the winner, his audacity tested his rivals and improved the value of their wins. In years to come Henao’s name will be listed in the record books but we’d do well to remember Contador’s efforts.