Egan Bernal completes a Colombian fiesta on the Col de Turini and assumes the race lead. After battling crosswinds in central France, posting the sixth best time in the time trial, Bernal assumed the lead of Paris-Nice and if Quintana tried again the next day, the overall result never looked in doubt on the final stage.
It was Paris-Nasty for the first two stages across central France thanks to a storm and weather warnings. Dylan Groenewegen won a bunch sprint on a day when various contenders and pretenders saw their chances of winning overall vanish and Marc Soler, Ion Izagirre, Jack Haig, Fabio Aru among those losing time.
Stage 2 averaged over 50km/h and after a relatively gentle start. Groenewegen won again but only after he made the final split of seven riders and Egan Bernal impressed, seemingly at ease in the crosswinds as he was shepherded by two experts, making the kopgroep when some thoroughbred Flandriens did not.
Sam Bennett won a pair of stages. He quit wearing the points jersey but only had a handful of points over Michał Kwiatkowski, perhaps he didn’t think he had a chance but more likely he just didn’t fancy the mountains ahead of Milan-Sanremo. He’s been a second wave sprinter able to win big from time to time but looks more dependable, especially in a week where Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel didn’t get a top-10 between them. Their status affords them time to turn things around but it’s unusual to see prolific winners struggling, although Cavendish is still probing whether he’s clear of mononucleosis, to race hard is to bring on the very fatigue that could see the virus take over.
On Stage 4 to Pélussin and the breakaway stayed clear with Magnus Cort beating Thomas de Gendt, Alessandro de Marchi and Giulio Ciccone, although De Gendt took the mountains jersey and would keep it until Nice. Ciccone’s a Giro stage winner so not a new name but the 24 year old has had a good start with Trek-Segafredo.
Simon Yates’ time trial win will worry rival Giro d’Italia contenders. You can sometimes win road stages with a dash of luck but not a time trial. Yes, the weather changed for the late starters, yes Yates sat out some of the crosswind battles but he chasing the breakaway the very day before the time trial. It’s still impossible to imagine Yates beating Tom Dumoulin in a time trial, but he looks able to limit the losses. Still it’s just one day and if this was a surprise so was seeing him finish fourth on the Turini, behind Cofidis Nicolas Edet.
The Col de Turini proved too much for Kwiatkowski. The climb was scaled fast but with Philippe Gilbert still up the road Team Sky had to pick up the pace further in case Gilbert took the race lead with a margin and this meant Kwiatkowski’s yellow jersey was sacrificed, pas de cadeau. Up ahead Dani Martinez won the stage, a Colombian fiesta as he beat Miguel Angel Lopez and behind Nairo Quintana led Egan Bernal in.
The final stage had its fireworks. Nairo Quintana took off on the climb to St Pancrace and if he had three team mates up the road only Marc Soler could last more than a few minutes. It was an unequal contest, last year when Simon Yates was overtaken by Marc Soler he ran out of team mates with Matteo Trentin among those tasked with chasing, this time Bernal had Kwiatkowski, Ivan Sosa and Tao Geoghan-Hart for support and they kept Quintana within range, although it was good to see him try. Ion Izagirre took the final stage, he’d long had a tow in the day’s breakaway and surged up the Col d’Eze in the big ring.
A great week’s racing, the final stage wasn’t the étape à la Hitchcock we’ve enjoyed in recent years but it was still enjoyable to see Nairo Quintana take off and try. The week as a whole was better than the last couple of years, the early stages enhanced by the crosswinds. Paris-Nice manages to combine cycling’s northern tradition with its southern, to blend crosswinds with cols and remain authentic.
At 22 Bernal is a young winner of Paris-Nice, not the youngest. René Vietto was 21 when he won in 1935. Bernal is the youngest since Stephen Roche in 1981. Nevermind the history, Paris-Nice can say more about the future, a proving ground for young talent. Only last year Marc Soler started the final stage in the white jersey and then won the race outright and the race has long been a proving ground for young talent, the white jersey winner a protagonist or even the outright winner in recent years – Kwiatkowski himself won it before. Still, seeing Egan Bernal donning a yellow jersey at the top of a summit finish felt important, a scene likely to be repeated for years to come. Before he aims for the Giro, there’s seeing how he copes with pressure and he wasn’t tested much this week, Kwiatkowski shouldered much of this but we’re down to parsing the softer skills because he passed all the hard tests.
A few other observations from the week:
- Direct Energie already looked like a certain pick for a Tour de France wildcard and cemented their chances with Damian Gaudin’s incongruous spell in the mountains jersey, he holds the handlebars like a worker holding a pneumatic drill. There was little to distinguish between Arkea-Samsic and Vital Concept in the week-long audition. Bryan Coquard scored two fifth places for Vital Concept but still doesn’t look capable of winning a World Tour sprint; Arkea-Samsic lost Warren Barguil to a crash but on paper still present the better choice but neither make compelling picks
- Some World Tour teams didn’t do much either, Dimension Data were last on the team classification and by a long way, Sunweb remain discreet too
- Jack Haig’s no longer eligible for the young rider competition but had a good race, his progress continues
- Thomas de Gendt wins the mountains competition, he’s got a cult following on social media but his team could make more his relentless energy
- The Nokere Koerse is mid-week. Milan-Sanremo on Saturday and Jumbo-Visma have drafted in Dylan Groenewegen who’s yet to race over the Cipressa and Poggio but a candidate based on his riding this week