The first of five picks looking back at 2020 is Paris-Nice. Held in March it almost feels like two seasons ago now. The final stage had to be scrapped but there was plenty to enjoy along the way despite a fraught atmosphere as the coronavirus spread across Europe. Max Schachmann led from start to finish but there was never a sense of inevitability and he was tested right until the final moments of the final stage.
The start was an anxious one. Astana, Mitchelton-Scott, Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, Movistar, UAE and CCC all decided not to take part because of the coronavirus pandemic, or rather epidemic as it was still a few days short of the World Health Organisation evoking a pandemic. In came Circus-Wanty and B&B-Vital Concept, hardly like-for-like replacements but the numbers were needed to make the peloton look bigger.
The race began in the Parisian suburb of Plaisir, literally “pleasure” in English but it was a grim day with wind and rain that couldn’t show off the area’s charms such as the scenic cobbled climb through the village of Neauphle-le-Château. Peter Sagan was the obvious pick for the day but as we’d see all week he couldn’t convert his presence into a win but did plenty to help his Bora-Hansgrohe colleagues. The race split early in the miserable weather and regroup only for a big crash to fracture the peloton again and among the riders caught out was Max Schachmann but he made it back. Eventually Julian Alaphilippe and Tiesj Benoot escaped from the reduced peloton and the duo held a slender lead their gap on the final climb in Neauphle was small enough for Dylan Teuns and Schachmann to bridge across to form a quartet from which Schachmann won the stage and took the race lead.
As if anxiety of the coronavirus and grim weather conditions weren’t sapping morale enough already, Stage 2 was the same day as the memorial service for Nicolas Portal in Auch. But with the mood down in the dumps the race put on a show again to lift the spirits a bit. The weather was instrumental as the race split in the foul conditions. The stage finale resembled what Cyrille Guimard sometimes calls “a sailing race”, each rider tacking into the wind as the peloton split. Nairo Quintana and Julian Alaphilippe made the front group only to crash and puncture respectively. Thibaut Pinot was instrumental in forcing the move but lost a handful seconds when the front group fractured later. Bora-Hansgrohe had numerical superiority but stuffed up the finish, Felix Großschartner trying an attack in the final straight which blunted his legs and Peter Sagan dropped off Pascal Ackermann too early leaving Giacomo Nizzolo to win. Schachmann stayed in yellow with the mosquito-sized Sergio Higuita the only other GC rider not to lose time to him on the day.
Stage 3 saw Ivan Cortina win the bunch sprint which came after a short rise to the line that had disrupted several sprinters. Peter Sagan was second, another loss but on the day he’d been invaluable in helping out Schachmann too. Stage 4 was a time trial and held in the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond where Julian Alaphilippe grew up but it wasn’t the promised festive homecoming, Saint-Amand’s not exactly a sparkling town at the best of times but on a grey day in March with the start and finish zones fenced off it wasn’t what locals had been looking forward to. Nor did the TT specialists get what they wanted, all were beaten by Søren Kragh Andersen who has been handy against the clock but until then never victorious but the Dane found the tricky course including some fast descents to his advantage while Schachmann placed second to extend his overall lead.
Stage 5 saw an early break of four riders go clear. Only this wasn’t the usual “4×4” of four riders from wildcard teams taking four minutes before an inevitable bunch sprint. Instead Jan Tratnik, Ryan Mullen, Alexis Gougeard and Anthony Turgis are strong rouleurs and the peloton, already missing several teams, struggled to pull them back. The quartet fractured, and with 7km to go Tratnik dropped Gougeard to go solo and it looked like he could hold off the bunch right until the final metres. In the reduced peloton behind Niccolò Bonifazio seemed to sense that if he didn’t do something the there’d be no chance and the Italian popped out of the bunch to take the stage ahead of Ivan Garcia Cortina and Peter Sagan, a big win for the second tier Total Direct Energie team, their last in the World Tour was two years prior in the 2018 Paris-Nice.
Stage 6 had a fast start, the stage had “breakaway” written all over it and many riders wanted a ticket to ride. Amid strong winds it took a long time for a move to stick and Romain Bardet was among the group of seven that got clear but never much of a lead. On the finishing circuit Bardet was the only one who could stay with Søren Kragh Andersen when the Dane bridged across. Sunweb played a clever relay in the finish, launching Tiesj Benoot while SKA was still up ahead. It gave Benoot some extra help but he looked so strong he could have barged clear solo anyway. Once he got 20 seconds and into that arched tuck of his he looked impossible to haul back. In the bunch behind Max Schachmann had a scare when he crashed on a corner but got saved by the three kilometre rule and didn’t lose time.
Stage 7 was the summit finish to La Colmiane and was to be the last stage of the race, the following day’s circuit around Nice was scrapped as France headed into le confinement. This left Schachmann within reach of the overall win as he held a 36 second lead on Tiesj Benoot and over a minute on Higuita, Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali. The stage took time to reach boiling point, as you’d sort of expect with a long, gradual summit finish ahead. Thomas De Gendt was reeled in and higher up the climb Romain Bardet had a quick attack but couldn’t go clear. Nairo Quintana could and showed the early season form that had made his surprise switch to Arkéa-Samsic a triumph and the Colombian took the stage. Lower down on GC he had space to attack but his condition was such that if he was higher on GC then the others probably couldn’t have matched him. Schachmann instead had to contain moves by Pinot and then Benoot and the German held on to claim the stage race.
With 2020 hindsight…
This was the last race for four months. The coronavirus pandemic crept up and pro cycling was a window to view its progression: a curiosity at first as a handful of riders reported feeling ill in the UAE Tour; then they were quarantined in hotel rooms. Suddenly the situation in Italy was so bad that the Strade Bianche race was off just before Paris-Nice started and a week later the sport halted. Paris-Nice went into its own bubble with the start and finish areas fenced off and this left mayors grumbling as they’d paid for a show and suddenly the fun was taken away but with hindsight the mayors just got a early taste of the lockdowns but it gave the sport a template to work with and if the Tour de France started in August it was in part because of the lessons learned in March and while several teams didn’t start Paris-Nice they’d all – for once – agree a shared plan for the resumption of the season. The sport hasn’t come out that different, yes the CCC team is gone but from the sounds of things shareholder pressure was as much to blame as the pandemic there. Instead more effects might not become visible until 2021 or beyond, we will see which races can get back-up again although this is a broader topic than celebrating a fine Paris-Nice so due a separate blog post sometime…
Back to the sport and Peter Sagan struggled for a stage win, a theme that lasted all season although if it had been a normal year he might have gone to the Giro, won a stage and enjoyed the rest of the year. But it wasn’t a normal season and Sagan spent all summer chasing an elusive win. More in memory than hindsight but Schachmann took a fine win that feels like it was two years ago given the two-part season we had and because he was injured in the summer is a name we ought to remember more. Sagan’s charisma still reaches audiences most other cyclists cannot but arguably Schachmann’s just as valuable to the Bora team now.
Sunweb had a great Paris-Nice, the SKA-Benoot combo worked well in Paris-Nice and even better in the Nice to Paris Tour. It didn’t all translate Total Direct Energie had a good Paris-Nice but an invisible Tour while Nairo Quintana’s spring form wasn’t carried through into the summer because while back home in Colombia a motorist drove into him and the smiling image of La Colmiane was replaced with a worried look and one compounded by an ongoing anti-doping investigation that by all accounts is going very slowly but could drag on for years, a file that could gather plenty of dust before anyone decides to close the case.
A word on the course too. In October heavy rains caused a lot of damage to the area behind Nice. Homes were flooded, some were swept away by torrents and several roads remain closed. Hopefully Paris-Nice returns in the spring but the choice of roads might still be restricted.
Why the highlight?
Because of the rain and crosswinds. Paris-Nice is a condensed stage race with sprints, a time trial and an alpine summit finish but “just add water” and you get a vintage edition. The 2020 edition did have an nervous feel to the race at the time with the coronavirus case count edging up, but in sporting terms this was simply a great week’s racing with action from start to finish. Schachmann led from start to finish but could never coast and his overall win wasn’t certain right until the final metres of the final stage. The image of Sergio Higuita holding his own alongside Mads Pedersen and Nils Politt sticks in the mind, helped by daring camerawork from the TV helicopter as it swept so low over the land to provide a side on view of the echelons.