Paris-Nice mid-race review

After Paris-Nice’s queen stage today (Thursday), we’re more than mid-way through the Race to the Sun. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins has a firm grip on the leader’s jersey which he assumed at the end of stage two, due partly to his excellent result in the previous day’s time trial but also to his and his team’s astute riding. It was on this stage that a large number of GC contenders saw their chances literally blown away by the fierce crosswinds which provoked large gaps in the peloton. Indeed, after only two days of racing the most likely contenders for the overall numbered four: Wiggins, the stealth-like Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), BMC’s young gun-slinger Tejay Van Garderen and Alejandro – watch out he’s back and he’s behind you – Valverde (Movistar).

That all changed today when Sky’s Richie Porte led his leader, and the remnants of the peloton, at a good, strong, even tempo up the final short, sharp and steep climb to Mende. An attack came from a frankly unexpected quarter, Vacansoleil’s Lieuwe Westra, who went on to win the stage and move up into second place overall. Coasting to the finish line even he looked astonished that his attack had succeeded but he unwisely frittered away further seconds in the last 25 metres. Let’s hope he doesn’t regret the showboating come Sunday evening.

Frankly, it’s most unlikely that Wiggo is going to be dispossessed of the leader’s jersey but it ain’t over until the fat lady sings or, in this case, the Brit with the skinny legs finishes atop Col d’Eze. Meanwhile, I have bragging rights down at my cycling club – thank you, Bradley.

Stage 1: Dampierre-en-Yvelines to Saint-Remy-les Chevreuse, 9.4km individual time trial

Gustav Erik Larsson wins stage 1 Paris-Nice (image courtesy of official Paris-Nice website)

Gustav Erik Larsson won the opening time trial (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Beijing Olympic silver medal winner in this discipline, Gustav Erik Larsson (Vacansoleil-DCM) won the first individual time-trial of Paris-Nice in a time of 11:19. He beat Sky’s Bradley Wiggins by just one second but he had enjoyed dry conditions while Wiggins and a number of other GC contenders, had ridden the 9.4km stretch in treacherously wet conditions.

Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who also rode in the wet, was in third place, four seconds back but surprisingly his teammate, the current world time trial champion and last year’s race winner, Tony Martin, visibly struggled in the rain and finished in 28th place, 25 seconds behind Larsson.

Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), last year’s opening time trial winner, was the first to record an impressive time which saw him finish ultimately in fifth place and take the King of the Mountains jersey. Others, such as BMC’s Taylor Phinney and Thor Hushovd, Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) and Tom Boonen (OPQS), showed good form and finished in the top 20 and within 20 seconds of the winner.

The rain only started to fall heavily when former race winners Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Nissan) and others made their way to the start. Riders like Tejay Van Garderen (BMC), who took the best young rider’s jersey and fourth place, and Richie Porte (Sky) were fortunate to have finished before the rain arrived. Nonetheless, all the contenders for the overall finished within 30 seconds of Larsson.

Stage 2: Mantes-la-Jolie to Orleans, 185km

Tom Boonenwins stage 2 Paris-Nice (image courtesy of Omega Pharma Quick Step official website)

Tom Boonen won stage 2 (image courtesy of OPQS)

Former world champion Tom and his magnificent Boonens [as Kathi would say – Ed] beat off Spanish road race champion Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) and John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i) in a powerful sprint, from a lead group of 20 riders that included several race favourites such as Wiggins, Leipheimer, Valverde and Van Garderen.

Others, including last year’s winner Tony Martin, yellow jersey wearer Gustav Erik Larsson (Vacansoleil), Frank and Andy Schleck (RadioShack) and many others missed the crucial split in the feed zone, caused by a change of wind direction, finished over two minutes down on the lead group and kissed goodbye to their chances at the overall.

In the final 10km, Omega Pharma-Quick Step telegraphed their intention to set Boonen up for the win. With four riders in the leading group, they were ideally placed to implement their strategy. Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil) tried to spoil their plans but to no avail. The team set him up and Boonen delivered, landing his 100th win (excluding criteriums and team time-trials) and his team’s 21st win of this season. Break out the champagne again, boys!

Stage 3: Vierzon to Lac de Vassiviere, 194km

Alejandro Valverde wins stage 3 Paris-Nice (image courtesy of Movistar official team website)

Alejandro Valverde won stage 3 (image courtesy of Movistar)

Movistar’s captain Alejandro Valverde took the uphill sprint to record his fourth win of the new season from a fast-closing Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE)  and Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol). Sky’s Bradley Wiggins retained the overall lead, with Levi Leipheimer and Tejay Van Garderen second and third respectively at six and 11 seconds.

The stage was animated by the trio of Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank), Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) and Roy Curvers (1t4i) who stretched their lead to over four minutes before Sky and OPQS started to chase, assisted in the final 50km by Movistar.

The breakaways were caught on the Cote de Bourganeuf with OPQS leading the subsequent charge towards the Lac de Vassiviere. Vacansoleil’s Sergey Lagutin attacked on the final climb but was caught within the last 2km allowing Movistar to perfectly lead out Valverde for the win and the points jersey. Simon Gerrans came from nowhere to quickly close him down but ran out of road.

The top three positions on GC remained unchanged while Valverde cut the gap to the yellow jersey by ten seconds to move up to sixth overall.

Stage 4: Brive-la-Gaillarde to Rodez, 183km

The previous day’s third-placed Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol) won stage four’s group sprint ahead of Grega Bole (Lampre-ISD) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil). British champion Bradley Wiggins maintained the overall lead and his time advantage over Leipheimer and Van Garderen.

After Andy Schleck’s no-show yesterday with tummy troubles, there were more casualties with the peloton losing two of his teammates, Jan Bakelants and Joost Posthuma, to the same malady. While BMC’s Thor Hushovd hadn’t been feeling grand, it was his young teammate Taylor Phinney who succumbed along with Lotto-Belisol’s Olivier Kaisen. The peloton also lost Twitter hero Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) to a bronchial infection. VeloVoices wishes them all a speedy recovery, along with Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) who crashed in Sunday’s time trial and suffered a hairline fracture of the pelvis.

Wednesday’s stage was enlivened by the French teams whose chances in the overall evaporated on Monday. 6km in, Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) broke free and were later joined by Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Leigh Howard (GreenEDGE) and Bart De Clerq (Lotto-Belisol). The five-man group worked to establish a lead of over five minutes.

Mate was a man on a mission, intent on accumulating points in the mountains classification to tear the jersey from the shoulders of Vacansoleil’s De Gendt. He achieved this on the Cote de Blaquie and with 40km remaining sat up, job over.

An eagerly anticipated tussle between Valverde, yesterday’s winner, and race leader Wiggins on the final climb into Rodez never materialised as Sky won the tactical battle and managed to whittle down Valverde’s support to just Jose Joaquin Rojas. It was Bole who launched the sprint but Meersman timed it perfectly to take the stage. There was no change to the podium placing and afterwards race leader Wiggins said:

I was strong today and it was a couple of degrees warmer too which helps as my body functions better in those conditions. I’m really starting to find my legs now and in the final I was able to stay out of trouble, move up into a decent position and stay right on Valverde’s wheel. It was good and the team were amazing today.

Looking ahead to today’s key stage to Mende, Wiggins commented:

It’s likely to be pretty similar and a question of emptying it on the last climb and see where it gets you. It’s pretty simple really, it’s not a tactical 15km climb but instead flat out for six minutes or so.

Stage 5: Onet-le-Chateau to Mende, 178km

All rounder Lieuwe Westra wins stage 5 (image courtesy of Vacansoleil official team website)

All-rounder Lieuwe Westra won stage 5 (image courtesy of Vacansoleil)

Yesterday he was third, today he nipped out of the bunch and headed off up the hill in the final kilometre, catching everyone by surprise, winning the stage and moving into second spot. A man who can sprint, climb and time trial, you’ve just got to take him seriously. Yes, Lieuwe Westra moved very much into contention on the queen stage into Mende.

2km in to today’s stage a break formed comprising Simon Clarke (GreenEDGE), Frederik Veuchelen (Vacansoleil), Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar) and David Le Lay (Saur-Sojasun). They were allowed to gain almost seven minutes before a trio were caught on the penultimate climb of the day. Veuchelen held out until 3km to go, when he was overtaken by the leading pack on the narrow road of the steep, final climb to Mende, on La Croix Neuve – the monteé Laurent Jalabert. He did, however, take over the King of the Mountains jersey.

Richie Porte set a good tempo on the final climb, no doubt hoping to dissuade potential attackers. Riders were shelled out the back like proverbial peas: Denis Menchov (Katusha), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), all gone. Then FDJ’s Arnold Jeannesson put in a dig and Maxime Monfort (RadioShack) and Tejay Van Garderen  – still the best young rider – fell off the pace, ensuring a big shake-up on GC.

Finally, with just over 500 metres to go, Lieuwe Westra attacked, causing momentary confusion. Wiggo had to chase, with Leipheimer and Valverde riding his coat tails. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) couldn’t match their pace. Westra crossed the line to take the stage and second place overall. Just six seconds down, Valverde nipped in ahead of a clearly exhausted Wiggins in third, to snatch two more precious seconds.

You can experience the final climb yourself thanks to Cycling the Alps via this link.

Coming up

Still leading after stage 5, Bradley Wiggins (image courtesy of official Paris-Nice website)

Still leading after stage 5, Bradley Wiggins (image courtesy of official Paris-Nice website)

Luckily for Wiggins there’s now a multitude of disappointed teams and riders who’ll be rapidly revising their race strategies over the dinner table tonight. In particular, there are teams who’ll have been looking to impress  – and who have done anything but – ASO with a view to getting a wild-card invite to the all-important Tour de France. Realistically, there’s only two stages left for a breakaway to try and stay away, and plenty of willing candidates, which will please Sky who have so far ridden an intelligent race. If you’re in the leader’s jersey it’s up to others to attack, you merely have to defend – nothing more, nothing less. Unless, those currently sitting behind Wiggins put time into him tomorrow and Saturday, they’re unlikely to do so on Sunday. I suspect that teams will be eager to preserve their World Tour points and will ride defensively, unless Wiggins blows up or has an accident, so we’re unlikely to see much change in the overall. But, of course, I could be wrong!

VeloVoices’ rider, number 97 Dennis Van Winden (Rabobank) has been riding in support of Luis Leon Sanchez. He managed to get in Monday’s decisive break but then fell and lost a whole lot of time. He’s currently 142nd on GC, a massive 42:35 back. Maybe, he’ll be in one of the following days’ breakaways!

General classification after stage 5

1. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) 18:23:40

2. Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:06

3. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:10

4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +0:18

5. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +0:37

6. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) +0:39

7. Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan) +0:46

8. Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-Bigmat) +01:6

9. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +1:16

10. Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) +1:21

Links: Paris-Nice preview, Paris-Nice official website

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