Time to look back at the 2018 season, to select a few highlights for review the moment with added hindsight. First, the final stage of Paris-Nice, a cliffhanger on the corniche where the result was uncertain until the very end.
An opening stage in the Paris suburbs saw a lively, cobbled uphill finish won by Arnaud Démare, a photo finish needed to see him ahead of of Gorka Izagirre and Christophe Laporte, in fact a diverse top-10 on sprinters, puncheurs, GC contenders and more.
The following day Dylan Groenewegen won, and impressed for the manner which he coped with the awkward finish with tight curves and an uphill run to the line.
The next stage to Châtel-Guyon saw a hilly finale where Julian Alaphilippe went all out on almost home roads but lost. Luis Leon Sanchez drifted away on the descent, his trademark move but was joined by Direct Energie’s Jonathan Hivert and a resurgent Remi di Gregorio whose springtime flourish may be explained by the fact that he’s still provisionally suspended following a EPO test. Hivert won the stage and Sanchez took yellow but only for a day because Wout Poels won the hilly time trial around Saint Etienne ahead of Marc Soler and Alaphilippe with Soler taking the white jersey for best young rider.
Direct Energie got a second stage win after Jérôme Cousin outfoxed Nils Politt in the final to Sisteron and the next day Rudy Molard won for the renamed Groupama-FDJ team, but Wout Poels crashed out leaving Sanchez to inherit the jersey.
The race began the final weekend with a stage to the ski resort of La Colmiane, 1,500m above sea level may not sound like much but it’s plenty for March and a 40 minute effort. Simon Yates won the stage but it wasn’t a thriller, the main contenders marked each other in the grim conditions and it was more a course of elimination with contenders being dropped one by one while Astana tried to set a tempo fast enough to deter attacks but slow enough to keep Sanchez tucked in yellow. Mitchelton-Scott took over the pace and in time Yates jumped away and held off Dylan Teuns. For Yates it’s also a trademark move, when he goes clear he’s often away for the win (and this time the yellow jersey too) while for Teuns it was the first of ten top-5 places but without a win all year.
The final stage, the now traditional loop around Nice, has been a highlight of years past in part because Alberto Contador launched long range attacks but he’d just retired. Still, things were close with eight riders within a minute of Yates on GC, there was good reason to hope for a lively finale. Soler went for a long range effort out of the Contador repertoire, indeed attacking on the same place of the same climb to Peille that Contador had used in 2017, this time with 47km to go. Soler was joined by Sky’s new signing David de la Cruz and caught Omar Fraile but the two Spaniards stuck to his back wheel for much of his time, enjoying the prodigious shelter of his 186cm build. Behind Roman Kreuziger cracked, 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 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, Tim Wellens and Movistar’s Richard Carapaz with them and Yates was dropped. Was the Briton pacing himself or had he cracked? Yates got back to the Izagirre, but partly because the brothers crashed on the descent of the Col d’Eze. In isolation the fall and the brief delay untangling their bikes might have 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. 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.
Why the highlight?
A good week of racing, there was only one processional stage and event then the sprint was lively. The final day was the standalone highlight, edge of the seat racing for those involved and anyone watching on their sofa. Soler could have sat tight, collected his white jersey and maybe aimed for the stage win but he went for it and was rewarded with the overall win.
- Dylan Groenewegen won in Vierzon ahead of Elia Viviani. Arguably they’re the two best sprinters of the year and this was the only time they met in straight sprint
- Direct Energie won two stages thank to icy poker plays, something Lilian Calmejane didn’t have when he went on a hot-headed rampage to Carcassonne during the Tour de France
- Julian Alaphilippe wasted a lot of energy the the finale of Stage 3, a great show but he paid for it before the top of the climb and perhaps learnt a lesson here to measure his efforts more which paid in the spring classics and the Tour de France?
- Wout Poels came back from his crash for the Giro-Tour double but didn’t seem as essential in the mountains as he’s been in previous grand tours
- The Izagirre brothers were reunited at Bahrain-Merida this year and were a force in Paris-Nice but less so in the rest of the year and they’re off to Astana
- Simon Yates losing a stage race in the final moments? The Giro was a different collapse and several factors explained Yates’ loss in Nice but perhaps he’d been on the boil for so long that by late May he was cooked?
- Movistar launching long range moves to win a stage race? It does happen
- Soler went on to have a good Volta a Catalunya and then became a luxury helper for Movistar in the Tour de France with the plan, it’s all a bit reminiscent of Miguel Indurain’s early career where he too won Paris-Nice before helping Pedro Delgado before in time becoming the team leader. 2019 will be a big year for him and the hopes invested in him.