It is ironic that just as some fans could have been forgiven for turning their backs on professional cycling because it?s scandal-ridden, boring, characterless, lacking charisma and tediously predictable, the riders served up a classic stage race that reminded us why we fell in love with the sport in the first place.
Whisper it quietly, but Paris-Nice was a throwback to the unpredictable 1980s when topsy-turvy stage races were common.
You never knew what was going to happen next. The fortunes of the favourites swung like a porch door in the breeze. Yesterday?s hero could be today?s zero, and vice versa.
Admittedly, last Sunday?s prologue didn?t promise much. Wet roads forced most of the big names to ride cautiously on a dreary route lined by half a dozen Frenchmen who clearly had nothing better to do for the afternoon.
But the rest of the way to Nice was a journey of unrivalled delight. A modern take on the old school heroics of road racing where caution was thrown to the wind as risks were taken and human frailties were exposed and exploited.
Here we consider ten reasons why Paris-Nice is a leading contender for stage race of the century so far?
10 Shortened first stage was a thriller
Who would have thought so much damage could be done in just 90 kilometres. The stage was shortened because of the awful weather, but when the racing did get underway, they didn?t hold back. Fierce crosswinds cut the peloton to ribbons like a demented seamstress with a grudge against Lycra. By the end of a couple of hours? racing, only 35 riders were within a minute of the lead and some big names were completely out of it.
9 Sprinters go on the attack
There were only two sprinters in the race so to see both of them on the attack on the run-in at Belleville was absolutely electrifying. Was it because their teams didn?t fancy trying to control the bunch on the run-in that Thor Hushovd went and Gert Steegmans followed? You had to feel for Sylvain Chavanel and Michael Albasini, their opposition in the sprint. They didn?t stand a chance.
8 Skil-Shimano stake a claim for Tour wild card
If they don?t get a place in the Tour de France on the strength of this week, there?s no justice in the world. Hubert Dupond spent much of the second stage out on his own, Clément Lhôtellerie did the same the next day, climbed well on Mont Ventoux, clinched the polka-dot jersey and shook things up on the last day in Nice. What else could Monsieur Prudhomme want?
7 Carlstrom?s breakaway succeeds
So much is made of how the big teams can reel in a breakaway without even thinking about it. They just up the pace and the seconds melt away with all the ease of phoning for a take-away. Well, it wasn?t as easy as that all week. Kjell Carlstrom of Liquigas, Lhôtellerie and Brad McGee of CSC were away all day, and although the Aussie fell away on the Croix de Chaubouret, the other two did the unthinkable and fought out the finish. They attacked in the eighth kilometre of 165 and proved long breaks can stay away even if their capture looked on the cards. We?ll tread carefully but it does seem the tide is changing.
6 Evans wins a road stage
We did a double-take when he won an uphill finish at the Ruta del Sol. Now we?re really taking notice of the Australian Cadel Evans. A bona fide Tour contender making a bona fide effort in a race other than the Tour. In March. What?s the world coming to? (Okay, so Contador won Paris-Nice last year but no one was watching him as a possible Tour winner then).
5 Gesink ? a gifted climber but not infallible
A rangy Rabobank rider romping away on a French mountain (with a Lotto jersey glued to his wheel). We?ve seen it all before, haven?t we, and it ended in tears. Well, don?t be so cynical. Gesink is obviously a gifted climber, but he?s not a machine. His legs were tiring as the week went on and psychologically he wilted when he was left to fend for himself.
4 They?re not riding like robots
The pattern of the racing was different every day. Yes, breakaways went and the bunch tried to chase, but this was not cycling by numbers. It was varied, unpredictable and daring. The stage to Sisteron, eventually won by Carlos Barredo, was fantastic. So many dangerous names were in the break as it took more than two minutes and the yellow jersey?s team struggled to contain it. In general, fortune favoured the brave (Carlstrom, Chavanel, Gesink) but Lady Luck showed she's a fickle mistress, choosing new favourites each day.
3 Is this the end of the super team?
Rabobank tried to use their muscle to control the race on Friday?s stage to Sisteron, but they didn?t manage to bring the Barredo break back. They chased long and hard and made little headway, wasting a lot of energy and failing to achieve their objective. It meant that on Saturday, when Gesink needed help on the false flat at the top of the Tanneron, Rabobank were all pedalled out. They were cooked and Gesink was on his own. So, it seems, it?s not going to be easy to control a race with six or seven team-mates now.
2 Tactical sense wins the day
One way of looking at it is that amid all the anarchy, it was the wily old campaigner who never put a foot wrong who finally won. A victory for dull pragmatism, surely? Well, not quite. Davide Rebellin was always in the right place at the right time every time it mattered. He made the split on stage one, was in the top five on Mont Ventoux and was never isolated by his team-mates. He wasn?t the most attacking rider in the race but he was the smartest. And sometimes smart deserves to win more than bold.
1 A brilliant finale
It?s quite rare these days to watch a race not knowing what is going to happen. Usually the moves are the same, just the colour of the jerseys changes. This week we had a long break that succeeded and big powerful break that went clear with several well-placed riders in it. The time gaps were big, riders were good one day, bad the next, but never relentless. And on the final stage the possibilities were endless. Would Nocentini try something to grab those three seconds? Would it come down to a sprint? In the end Rebellin held on but it wasn?t a given. No one watching Sunday?s stage thought: ?Ah, boring. It?s all done and dusted.? Not until they?d all crossed the line was it in the bag.
All photos by Luc Claessen/ISPA
PARIS-NICE 2008: STAGE REPORTS
Stage seven: Rebellin hangs on, Sanchez takes the stage
Stage six: Gesink sinks
Stage five: Quick Step make it three
Stage four: Evans above
Stage three: Flying Finn takes the win
Stage two: Steegmans back on top
Stage one: Steegmans rides the storm
Prologue: Hushovd wins
Why Paris-Nice was simply a great race
Gesink: I need to learn how to descend
Interview: Cadel Evans
Millar out of Paris-Nice
Stage four analysis
Stage three analysis
Stage one analysis
Millar goes down but isn't out
Prologue analysis: winners and losers
Big names line up for Paris-Nice and defy UCI
Teams vote to ride Paris-Nice
Paris-Nice preview: does the route suit David Millar?
Days two and three
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Sports journalist Lionel Birnie has written professionally for Sunday Times, Procycling and of course Cycling Weekly. He is also an author, publisher, and co-founder of The Cycling Podcast. His first experience covering the Tour de France came in 1999, and he has presented The Cycling Podcast with Richard Moore and Daniel Friebe since 2013. He founded Peloton Publishing in 2010 and has ghostwritten and published the autobiography of Sean Kelly, as well as a number of other sports icons.
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