Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) won the first stage of the 2018 edition of Paris-Nice on Sunday in a photo finish sprint ahead of Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida).
So close were the two riders on the line that it took several minutes for the verdict to arrive that Démare edged the win by a matter of millimetres.
In a blanket finish, Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) also produced late surges to finish third and fourth either side of the top two, finishing within half a wheel of them.
For Démare, it was the second year in a row that he has won the opening stage of Paris-Nice, while for his team it was a victory on their first ever stage riding under the name of their new sponsors, Groupama.
He was the only sprinter to be able to contest the finish, with most of the top ten made up of puncheurs and climbers.
It briefly looked as though Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r) might have been able to hold off the bunch and win the stage having attacked at the foot of the 2km drag to the finish, but a strong turn at the front of the bunch from Izagirre’s teammate Ivan Garcia ensured he was caught in sprint.
A crash 2.5km thinned out the bunch and took out several big names, including GC contenders Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). As the finish was uphill, the usual 3km does not apply, meaning everyone held up will lose time on the GC.
How it happened
It was a cold, blustery day of racing, with all of the riders wrapped up thoroughly in arm-warmers and leg-warmers.
A three-man breakaway was established within the first few minutes of racing, consisting of Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale), Jurgen Roelandts (BMC) and Pierre-Luc Perichon (Fortueno-Samsic).
They built a maximum lead of over three and a half minutes, but were mostly held within a couple of minutes during their time out ahead.
Most of the work at the front of the bunch was done by Quick-Step Floors and Groupama-FDJ, hoping to set up Julian Alaphilippe and Démare respectively.
Perichon accelerated out of the group on two categories three climbs tackled in close succession around the halfway point of the stage, to claim maximum points in each for the king of the mountains classification. He’ll therefore wear the polka-dot jersey jersey on Monday.
Roelandts, meanwhile, claimed maximum points at both intermediate sprints.
On a long, straight stretch of road with 35km to go, Mitchelton-Scott briefly took to the front of the race in an attempt to benefit from the reasonably strong wind blowing.
The move did not manage to split the bunch, but caused enough panic for a small crash to occur that Tejay van Garderen (BMC) went down in.
Van Garderen’s fall was severe enough for him to become the first retiree from this year’s Paris-Nice, meaning BMC will have to alter their plans and elect a new leader.
The move was also enough to bring the gap to the breakaway back down to 30 seconds. The peloton let them dangle up ahead for a little while longer, before finally making the catch at 14km from the line.
As the bunch approached the finish, other teams started jousting for position at the front, with Lotto-Soudal claiming supremacy with 7km to go.
André Greipel lead them through several sharp bends and strung out the bunch, planning to set-up Tim Wellens rather than go for the sprint himself – an indication of how difficult the finish was.
After the crash occurred with 2.5km to go, Groupama-FDJ took control at the front of the bunch through Ramon Sinkeldam, and managed to keep Démare close enough to the front to set him up for the sprint.
He and Izagirre both started their sprints up the line early, each taking opposite sides of the road, and slugged their way up the uphill finish in slow-motion.
Izagirre held the initial advantage, but Démare managed to swing into his slipstream and then emerge from the Spaniard’s wheel and edge victory on the line, and with it the early race lead.
Paris-Nice continues on Monday with stage two, from Orsonville to Vierzon over a distance of 187km and with a sprint finish widely expected.
Paris-Nice 2018, stage one: Chatou to Meudon, 135km
1. Arnaud Démare (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 3-07-39
2. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida
3. Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis
4. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
5. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Team Sunweb
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, all same time
7. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2 secs
8. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC Racing
9. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott
10. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at same time
General classification after stage one
1. Arnaud Démare (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 3-07-29
2. Gorka Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 4 secs
3. Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis, at 6 secs
4. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at 10 secs
5. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 10 secs
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 10 secs
7. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 12 secs
8. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC Racing, at 12 secs
9. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott, at 12 secs
10. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at same time, at 12 secs