Paris-Nice review

Bradley Wiggins (Sky) became only the second British rider to win Paris-Nice, 45 years after Tommy Simpson. His victory was forged in the pouring rain on day one’s time trial, cemented on stage two’s wind-wrecked course, held together by impressive tactics and strong team support and, finally, crowned today atop Col d’Eze with a measured display of power and precision.

Arguably this win is as important to Bradley’s palmares as his win in last year’s Criterium du Dauphine and, given the parcours and contenders in this year’s Tour de France, one has to say this could be the year Brad gets onto the podium, maybe even onto the top step. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s recall what happened over the last three stages where I was ‘Behind the Barricades’, in the cars and on the road.

Stage 6: Suze-La-Rousse to Sisteron, 176.5km

Luis Leon Sanchez wins stage 6 Paris-Nice (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Luis Leon Sanchez wins stage 6 (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Former Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) prevailed into Sisteron, just beating fellow escapee Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan). Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda) won the bunch sprint for third. Bradley Wiggins finished safely in the bunch to retain his precious six-second lead over Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil).

Sanchez and Voigt were the remains of the day’s final breakaway which had formed on the Cote du Pas du Ventoux and who were surprisingly all still together as they entered Sisteron for the first pass. Sky had sought only to neutralise the threat posed by Sanchez – 3:51 adrift of the yellow jersey – not snuff it out.

The final circuit around Sisteron, which I’d ridden that very afternoon, was the ideal launch pad for an assault. Voigt attacked on the Cote des Marquises, and only Sanchez and Mickael Cherel (AG2R) could hold his wheel. Cherel soon lost contact, leaving just Sanchez and Voigt mano a mano.

As they raced towards the line on a largely flat final stretch, they still had sufficient advantage to indulge in a little cat-and-mouse. Sanchez forced Voigt to lead out and snuck across the line, arms aloft, before the peloton thundered in just 14 seconds behind. It had been a brave ride from Voigt as Sanchez is an equally renowned breakaway artist, albeit with younger legs.

Stage 7: Sisteron to Nice, 220km

Thomas de Gendt wins stage 7 Paris-Nice (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Thomas de Gendt wins stage 7 (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Yesterday’s penultimate and longest stage was won by Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who soloed to victory having escaped early on with Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). The pair established an impressive lead before De Gendt pulled away on the Col de Vence to finish a full six minutes clear on the Promenade des Anglais. John Degenkolb (Project 1t4i) led in the peloton, over nine minutes down.

On the last road stage, there were large numbers of riders still harbouring ambitions of a stage win. As a consequence, the first hour’s racing took place at a hectic 50.3kph. Eventually Taaramae and De Gendt, and the rest heaved a collective sigh of relief. Finally, they were able to pedal at a more measured pace, catching up with the gossip, drinking in the magnificent scenery and enjoying the sunshine.

The peloton’s serenity was perturbed on the run in to Nice by Movistar, who seized an opportunity to move Alejandro Valverde back onto the podium. Third-placed Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) fell twice on the descent into Nice, having already taken a tumble earlier. After his second fall Movistar moved up a gear, forcing Leipheimer and his team mates to chase on roads I know intimately. I was wincing at the risks they were taking, on a technical descent, to regain the peloton.

His final fall occurred when he ploughed into teammate Dries Devenyns, who had been unable to avoid a police motorbike parked on a blind corner to check on a Lampre rider who was down. It effectively ended his GC ambitions and he wisely took no further risks. Coincidentally, Cadel Evans (BMC) told my husband he doesn’t ride Paris-Nice specifically because he doesn’t like the descents, which he feels are too dangerous. An interesting comment from a man who’s both a superb bike-handler and generally unafraid to take risks when racing.

The cameras failed to catch one of the more exciting chases of the day. After the race, OPQS decided to beat the traffic and ride back to their hotel. Spotting Tom Boonen, I gave chase. If only my husband had taken a turn on the front, I might have caught him. Tom’ll never know what he missed!

Again Bradley Wiggins was a visible presence at the front of the peloton, adequately protected and chaperoned by his teammates, especially when Movistar dialled up the pace on the descent from Bouyon. He took a sufficiently large enough cushion against Valverde and a slender, but probably sustainable, advantage over Westra into the final time trial.

Stage 8: Col d’Eze Individual Time-Trial 9.6km

Paris-Nice podium (l to r) Alejandro Valverde, Bradley Wiggins, Lieuwe Westra (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

Paris-Nice podium (l to r) Alejandro Valverde, Bradley Wiggins, Lieuwe Westra (image courtesy of Paris-Nice website)

As anticipated, the duel of the day – Wiggins vs Westra – was won by the former who did just enough to win both the stage, the overall and the points jersey. Westra was second and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale), a former French time trial champion, was third.

Bradley showed grace and poise under pressure as Westra thundered out of the start gate to record the fastest split at the only checkpoint. But Bradley didn’t falter. He stuck to the plan and the plan paid off.

It was a gutsy ride from Vacansoleil’s Westra. His team were also rewarded with the team prize and the King of the Mountains jersey for Frederik Veuchelen. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) retained his grip on the jersey of best young rider.

Today’s final stage had seen the race return to its roots by reintroducing the Col d’Eze time trial. Wiggins had been up and out early riding the course with Sky manager David Brailsford and then retracing his steps, following one of his teammates in the team car. Bradley, like me, understands that planning and preparation are key to success. I wished him good luck and marvelled that a man whose legs are thinner than my arms can pedal so fast. Of course, it could have been the slimming effect of his black tights but they never have quite the same effect on my legs.

Afterwards, Wiggins paid tribute to the efforts of his team mates:

I’m pleased more for everyone else rather than myself after all the hard work the boys have put in this week. Ultimately it fell on my shoulders to finish the job off and I’m just made up that I was able to do that. To follow in Tom Simpson’s footsteps and become the second British rider to win Paris-Nice is something special. I’d say it’s one of my biggest wins  – as was the Dauphine – and to have both of these on my palmares is a huge honour.

Elia Viviani ( image courtesy of Liquigas-Cannondale website)

Elia Viviani (image courtesy of Liquigas-Cannondale)

I had the pleasure of following Liquigas’ Elia Viviani in one of the Mavic neutral service vehicles. He was only going twice as fast as I would on the climb so I suspect he wasn’t going full gas. Indeed he finished 115th, 4:06 down on Wiggins, in a similar time to Tom Boonen, who was probably fatigued from evading me the previous evening. I confess I spent most of the stage watching the boys warm up and cool down, hung out with friends, made a few new ones and just enjoyed the atmosphere. I did however note the busiest place on today’s course was the only patisserie along this stretch of road. Next time I watch a race, I’m coming loaded with my home-made cakes.

What of VeloVoices’ man, Rabobank’s Dennis Van Winden? He finished 132nd overall, well over an hour down on the winner. We passed him as he was riding back down the Moyenne Corniche after his time trial. It may be that he expended his efforts in helping Luis Leon Sanchez or maybe he was one of many riders suffering from minor ailments which compromised his race.

Closing thoughts

Paris-Nice is regarded as an important race on the calendar because it’s the first real test of form for Grand Tour contenders and pretenders. A number of teams’ and riders’ aspirations were decimated by the weather on stages one and two, tummy troubles, bronchial problems, falls and injuries. This was particularly worrying for those teams vying for Tour de France wild-card entries but I’d say that Cofidis, Europcar, Saur-Sojasun and Project 1t4i have probably done enough in two months of racing to merit inclusion.

Sky were the stand-out team on account of their calculated and measured racing, plus the influence they exerted over the course of the race – shades of the GB team in last year’s World Championship. People might laugh at Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ but in this race the theory was amply demonstrated, and rewarded. They’re now top dog in the UCI’s team ranking. Another team worthy of mention for their aggressive style is Vacansoleil. Other teams, please note.

Second-placed team in the UCI rankings is Movistar, who enjoyed a great week’s racing, winning the queen stage with Valverde. He takes over the number one individual ranking. He’s back and he means business. We never doubted it for a moment.

An honourable mention should go to BMC, who managed to keep Tejay Van Garderen in the white jersey and well placed in the overall classification, despite losing Taylor Phinney early on to intestinal troubles, and with a number of the others, including Thor Hushovd, also suffering. Our recent interviewee Amael Moinard, riding in support of Tejay, finished 31st today and 52nd overall.

While attention was focussed on RadioShack‘s Frandy, it was Jens ‘who dares wins’ Voigt and Maxime Monfort, who despite being under the weather, finished a creditable seventh overall to spare the team’s blushes. Back to the drawing board, Bruyneel.

Only one team, Katusha, managed to place two riders in the top ten, almost without anyone noticing. Congratulations to fourth-placed Simon Spilak and Angel Vicioso (tenth).

One of the bright young prospects of French racing, and former Tour de L’Avenir winner, Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-BigMat) was sixth and Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS), who had been riding in support of Leipheimer, finished a creditable eighth. Saur-Sojasun’s Jerome Coppel, the winner of L’Etoile de Besseges, will have been disappointed to finish 11th.

Finally, a mention for Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski, who memorably finished last year’s race under the wheels of a stationary vehicle but this year came home ninth. That’s got to be an improvement!

General classification

1.  Bradley Wiggins (Sky) 28:12:16

2.  Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:08

3.  Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +1:10

4.  Simon Spilak (Katusha) +1:24

5.  Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) +1:54

6.  Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-BigMat) +2:13

7.  Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan) +2:21

8 . Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +2:42

9 . Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) +3:30

10. Angel Vicioso (Katusha) +3:59

Links:  Mid-race review, Preview, Official website

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