Time to look back at five highlights of the season with the luxury of hindsight. Here is the second from Paris-Nice and the final stage which saw the overall result uncertain until the very end.
To recap this had been a lively race from the start with two days worthy of the spring classics although “spring” in pro cycling is often a euphemism for wintry conditions. Arnaud Démare won on the opening day and Sonny Colbrelli the next. Sonny was named after TV series Miami Vice but this was no day for white suits and open necked shirts, Colbrelli won when others were frozen, some even struggling to grip the bars in the final sprint. Richie Porte was among those caught out in the crosswinds and Romain Bardet was tumbled by the commissaires for the stickiest of bidons and if the incident dammaged his saintly image his mea culpa was handled deftly.
The youth theme continued as Sam Bennett took a big win ahead of Kristoff, Degenkolb, Kittel, Matthews, Démare and Greipel. The next day Julian Alaphilippe won the time trial to the top of Mont Brouilly: finally a big win for someone often so close. Simon Yates won atop the Mur de Fayence and Sergio Henao was just behind to take what would be a valuable time bonus and don the yellow jersey. Richie Porte won atop the Col de la Couillole, a win and a demonstration to colleagues and followers that he hadn’t given up. Contador took back 11 seconds on GC that day too and was 30 seconds behind Henao on GC.
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. This set up a long chase over more climbs with Contador’s lead going up over a minute. It began to fall on the run to the finish line. Contador crossed the line and the clock counted down and out came the calculators and spreadsheets 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.
Why the highlight?
This was edge of the sofa stuff and heightened by the length of the action and the suspense. Contador didn’t just launch a failed bid that was inevitable pulled back by Team Sky’s tractor beam, this was a duel between two riders for much of the time.
Richie Porte lost the race but didn’t give up and this must have rallied the team even more to his cause. Direct Energie floundered with Bryan Coquard but won the mountains jersey with Lilian Calmejame, a scenario replayed in Technicolor later in the season.
If Contador provided the action Henao won the race, one of Sky’s workers getting their chance. He’s a low profile rider though, it’s rare to read an interview or remember a quote from him.
Contador kept trying too. His retirement didn’t seem at all likely with a close second place here and another in the Tour of the Basque Country. He won over new fans but here at least the unexplained questions over his past such as the clenbuterol postivie or his time with banned coach José Marti dampen enthusiasm. Still he was racing like a pirate with a dagger between his teeth from February to the Vuelta but perhaps it’d because he could? No need to secure UCI points, nor secure a new contract, he raced 2017 as he pleased. But it probably didn’t please him, losing out again and again. Risky ventures only pay off occasionally but often he enlivened a race and ennobled the winner only to go home with nothing to show but sore legs and new fans. It finally came together on the Angliru in the Vuelta.