Paris-Nice analysis: Wiggins and Sky take a giant step

Bradley Wiggins’ victory in Paris-Nice was a significant indication that the Tour de France is a realistic ambition

Words by Edward Pickering in Nice

Sunday March 11, 2012

Compared to the giant climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees, the Col d’Eze is a small hill, but this sinuous road winding its way above Nice to the Grande Corniche represented a huge step for Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. In the sharp spring sunshine of the Mediterranean, the British rider won the last stage of Paris-Nice on the Col d’Eze and defended the yellow jersey he’d held since stage one.

It’s extremely early to talk of Wiggins as a favourite for the Tour de France. But it’s not too early to look at his performance in Paris-Nice and conclude that he’s looking strong and confident, possibly more so than at any other point in his career. Paris-Nice is a difficult race to win, an easy race to lose, but Wiggins was one of only two riders in the race not to blow his chances at one point or another before the final stage. That takes organisation, confidence, strength, a good team and the complete avoidance of bad luck.

Coincidentally, this is also how Cadel Evans won the Tour last year.

Halfway there
Wiggins’ win in the 2012 Paris-Nice goes all the way back to November 1st, 2011. In his post-stage press conferences, Wiggins has been emphasising that Paris-Nice is part of a plan which started at the beginning of November and goes all the way to the Tour.

From Tuesday November 1st to Sunday July 22, the final day of the Tour, it’s 264 days. Coincidentally (surely Sky haven’t organised it in that much detail), today is 132 days into the plan, exactly halfway, but Wiggins and Sky look more than halfway there. “This plan hasn’t just been written down on the back of a bog roll, or anything,” as he memorably put it in Nice. Paris-Nice is a detail. But like the Japanese Bridge in Monet’s Waterlily paintings, it’s an extremely important one in terms of the bigger picture.

For Wiggins, Paris-Nice has personal significance. He’s a keen student of the history of cycling, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, when his only access to the world of the professional peloton was the pages of the British cycling magazines, Paris-Nice was the first international race of the year to be given detailed coverage. While his team-mate Mark Cavendish’s cycling culture is more Italian, Wiggins loves the French races: Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné, in both of which he is now the reigning champion. And the Tour.

How the race was won
It wasn’t a vintage Paris-Nice for purist cycling fans. Race followers, apart from the small contingent of British press, complained of the torpor that seemed to accompany the peloton across France. There were few attacks, and the handful of favourites who survived the initial cull in the crosswinds of stage one, seemed to be content to leave the race to the uphill finish at Mende, and the Col d’Eze time trial. The French challenge was non-existent, either for stage wins or for the overall, which meant the locals virtually lost interest. Only Sky, and Vacansoleil, who had an extremely aggressive and productive week, looked like they were enjoying themselves.

But while the chilly weather at the start and the suffocating influence of the summit finishes reduced the excitement, it was a classic Paris-Nice in terms of the gradual erosion of the list of possible winners over the week. Defending champion Tony Martin lost his time trial mojo, and with it the race, in the Prologue. The crosswinds into Orleans wiped all but 21 names from the top of the GC. Mende reduced the shortlist of contenders to four: Wiggins, Westra, Valverde and Leipheimer. Movistar’s questionable aggression on the front of the bunch into Nice when they heard Leipheimer had hit the deck put the American out of the race, while Valverde couldn’t hope to match Westra and Wiggins in the final time trial.

In short, Wiggins didn’t just win the race. He did a very effective job of not losing it. Where other riders made mistakes or faltered, Wiggins looked imperious, along with his team. It might not have been very rock and roll, but it’s a legitimate stage race-winning tactic, especially when your primary weapon is your time trialling ability. He didn’t look weak or exposed once all week. More than one Paris-Nice has been lost on the twisting descents of the Riviera, but Wiggins kept his nerve all the way to the bottom of the Col d’Eze.

It wasn’t flawless. Wiggins was dropped by Westra on Mende, and the Dutchman matched him almost all the way up the Col d’Eze. A few times, in the flatter stage finishes, Wiggins had done the right thing as race leader and put himself as far forward as possible to avoid the maelstrom of riders trying to move up. But he was riding a little wide of the bunch, looking like he was taking a fair bit of wind. Sky need somebody in front of him at these points at the Tour, although this is far easier said than done, and for the most part Wiggins was well protected and positioned.

For their part, Sky currently look like the strongest cycling team in the world. When David Brailsford announced he was hoping to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years of forming Team Sky, I laughed. It was an attention-grabbing, huge, ambitious statement that I assumed was made with one eye on the headlines that his team would need to generate to gain support from the wider sporting public. I thought he was blue-sky thinking out loud.

But suddenly, they’re looking ahead of schedule.

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