In 1972 Eddy Merckx was so confident of winning Paris-Nice that before the start of the final stage he posed for photos with a speedboat, a prize that year. Only Raymond Poulidor rocketed up the Col d’Eze to win the stage, take the race overall and collect the prize. Primož Roglič can show a cannibal-like trait at times but must also know a thing or two about not counting chickens until they hatch, or as they say in Slovenian, “not praising the day until the evening”. But on the morning of the final stage it did look like Roglič had Paris-Nice sewn up and he even had a good chance of winning the final stage too…
Many star riders had opted for Tirreno-Adriatico, but if two simultaneous World Tour races might sound incongruous to outsiders or management consultants, the format works well with a large share of the peloton able to bank a week-long stage race in mid-March and viewers getting double the action. Perhaps more than Wout van Aert or Julian Alaphilippe, the one thing Paris-Nice really missed this year was the wind. Ride from Paris to Nice and long days across the plains are inevitable, and if the weather is benign, so is the racing.
We got some fine bunch sprints, but this is the sporting version of nouvelle cuisine when we’d hoped for a feast, a daily dish to be consumed in seconds rather than hours. Sam Bennett won the opening stage in Saint Cyr and would take second while Cees Bol seized the moment to take a chaotic finish, too.
Without echelons on the first two days, the time trial in Gien was the first obvious rendez-vous for the GC contenders and Roglič was the best, just behind Stefan Bissegger and Rémi Cavagna, with Brandon McNulty close, then Max Schachmann and Sacha Vlasov close by. The likes of Tao Geoghegan Hart, Jai Hindley, David Gaudu and Guillaume Martin were among those on the receiving end in a 14km time trial and they’ll face four times this distance if they ride the Tour de France.
The wine stage past Macon and into the Beaujolais was a lively one with a difficult finishing circuit. These are not legendary roads but they do offer great riding for visitors and make just as good terrain for racing as they do red wine. All talk of wine tasting was spat out with Roglič’s late surge to win solo as he crushed his rivals like they were grapes in a vat. He took 12 seconds by the line and another 13 in time bonuses with Schachmann again close by, and this was the German once again the second best. Schachmann finished 19th on the stage to Biot won by Roglič, but all were on the same time so this momentary gap didn’t cost anything.
Schachmann was back on Roglič’s wheel for the big mountain top finish to La Colmiane. Gino Mäder was the lone breakaway survivor and with a chance of the stage win, but after everyone else was dropped Roglič launched one last time to shake off Schachi and got clear, rounded Mäder and took the stage win, his third so far. Some would have preferred if he could have let Mäder win, but this was no place for gifts with Roglič being hounded by Schachmann, who’d been right on his wheel and still seconds separating the main riders on GC with a tricky stage behind Nice still to come, rather. We don’t need hindsight to see Roglič couldn’t afford to play Santa either. Name a rider who has lost a stage race because they didn’t distance their rivals enough: Roglič. Name a rider who has seen stage races slip from him on the last day: Roglič. He’d be a tragic figure if it wasn’t for all the races he wins.
The final stage of Paris-Nice is never a victory parade. Ever since the Col d’Eze time trial was abolished it’s often the most difficult and spectacular day of the week. Still, the briefing on the Jumbo team bus wouldn’t have lasted long, a stage on the same roads as last summer’s Tour de France and within easy riding of several of the squad’s Monaco apartments presented few surprises and they needed to keep a lid on the race so that Schachmann and Astana didn’t take time; maybe letting a breakaway go to mop up the time bonuses would help. “Just keeping Primož safe to bring it home“.
Which brings us to the moment the race was lost. Or rather the moments, because like many disasters, it’s not one mishap but a chain of events. The first crash on the descent from Levens to Roquette – the same used in the Tour de France’s opening stage last year, the ice-rink stage – where he dislocated his shoulder and had his shorts shredded. Many would demand days off work following an accident like this, yet Roglič was back on the bike but, however quickly we see a rider remount, these incidents are never cost-free. Muscles ache, skin burns, adrenalin has burned up energy reserves, swelling starts and more. Then Roglič crashed again on the same descent the next time and jammed his chain. He got a replacement bike but had to chase and there was a barrage, where the convoy was being held back, leaving Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma teammates to close the gap. They’re strong, but lacked a big rouleur and the likes of Oomen, Kruijswijk and Bennett were spent quickly in the chase up the Vésubie valley, leaving Roglič alone to close the final gap of less than ten seconds. This was the point of maximum danger, where the final metres are often the hardest part of the gap to close, and meanwhile, Astana and Bora-Hansgrohe had riders on the front, so it was a lone rider in yellow versus a team trial.
Roglič never gave up though, climbing as fast as he could and prompting many double takes from dropped riders coasting up the last climb and upon reaching the finish, congratulated Schachmann on his win with a fist-bump when by all accounts he might have felt like something less gracious and would be entitled to vanish inside the team bus right away (he didn’t show up for the podium ceremony to collect the points jersey). Schachmann himself said he didn’t want to win this way but he did, and not just because Roglič crashed, but because someone else had to win and all throughout he was the second best rider. It’s a small consolation for last year’s winner on his way back after that accident in Bergamo that broke his collarbone.
Not a vintage edition because the wind didn’t enliven the opening stages and once the race reached hillier terrain, the GC battle wasn’t much of a contest either. But like a restaurant that served up a surprise dessert, the memory might be of the final dish in the hills behind Nice. Primož Roglič looked to have the race sewn up with two stage wins and being the best-placed GC rider from the time trial, but all this just left him seconds ahead of his rivals and one crash was enough to topple him from the podium. He wasn’t alone: Richie Porte, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Brandon McNulty would also crash out of the race, and the absence of Ineos’s leaders allowed Jumbo-Visma to keep a grip on the race all week, but the final stage twist just adds to the lore of Paris-Nice.
Paris-Nice is often a small dress rehearsal for the Tour. Younger riders get a go and the youth competition showed strong rides by Vlasov, Lucas Hamilton, Jorgensen, McNulty and Paret-Peintre. It’s a tune up for next weekend’s Milan-Sanremo, too. But perhaps the long term effect will be on Jumbo-Visma; the team will give leadership to some of their other riders in upcoming stage races but last week’s racing suggests they’ll play it even safer in July.