Nowhere is nice to ride in Europe this weekend…
Wet and windy weather is conducive to great racing, but never makes for great riding.
And this weekend, across Europe, riders have been subject to not just spring weather, but proper winter conditions. Rain, sleet, wind, gusts and temperatures that actually feel sub-zero, from Belgium to Italy to France, it’s been, just, urgh.
Not that we should have expected any different from Paris-Nice. It is, after all, nicknamed the Race to the Sun, implying that that big yellow ball of fire in the sky shouldn’t make an appearance in France’s northern departments.
…but the weather made for thrilling racing
When you looked at the parcours of this morning’s race, it didn’t immediately stand out as a stage that you just had to watch. Largely flat, it was destined to end in a mass sprint.
But how wrong those assumptions were. Once the break of four riders assembled and went up the road and built a lead, the race behind them launched into life.
The race split at 40km, creating three groups of echelons and the damage was to be permanent.
What was the first chasing group soon became the lead group that contested the final, and what was originally the group that missed out when the winds split the race were a disorganised mess behind.
Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Sergio Henao (Sky) were the only two GC riders to make it into the first group, with the other GC favourites, most notably Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Richie Porte (BMC), stranded over a minute back down the road.
Trek and Orica-Scott attempted to inject the required pace into the group, but they couldn’t get a sustained rhythm going.
Up ahead, the leading group of 26 riders were driving a pace so furious that many of its riders couldn’t withstand the speed. One by one, riders dropped off.
Oh, we love crosswinds.
FDJ and Quick-Step deserved the top-two places
This is not meant as a slight on FDJ, but it rare that they are so instrumental to the outcome of the day’s racing. But on stage one, they were utterly excellent. They dominated and richly deserved their victory.
They were the ones who instigated the split at 40km and in the front group of 22 – that later became 26 when the breakaway were caught – there were five FDJ riders: Démare, Olivier Le Gac, Jacopo Guarnieri, Davide Cimolai and Rudy Molard.
Together, the quartet riding in support of their team leader Démare played a significant part in keeping the groups behind at a distance and ensuring that their man was sheltered and in good enough shape to be able to respond to Julian Alaphilippe’s attack on the incline in the final 1,500m.
But special mention must also be reserved for Quick-Step Floors. They had one more man than FDJ in the decisive move, and all six could quite possibly have won. If you’re going to take six riders with you to negotiate a finish that includes a steep ascent and then a flat-out sprint, these lot aren’t that bad: Martin, Alaphilippe Jack Bauer, Philippe Gilbert, Marcel Kittel, Yves Lampart.
Even though they were undoubtedly working for Kittel, it’s testament to their strength in depth that when the German fell back in the final kilometres, they didn’t remain undeterred, giving Alaphilippe the licence to make his attack that looked for a moment would hold out. But against Démare, a much superior sprinter, second was still a strong result.
Give the Belgian team Belgian weather and it’s little wonder that they’ll thrive. Chapeau, guys.
That GC carnage
The first significant movement in the general classification stakes was not meant to be until Wednesday’s 14.5km time trial.
But with the aforementioned weather and FDJ and Quick-Step’s collaboration, we were treat to a GC meltdown.
Richie Porte (BMC) is already 38 seconds adrift of Dan Martin and Sergio Henao, while Warren Barguil (Sunweb) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) are 16 and 17 seconds further in arrears, respectively. Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) is 55 seconds behind, too.
Considering that Geraint Thomas (Sky) won this race by a mere four seconds last year from Contador, those time gaps are likely to be hugely important.
Although Martin is likely to cede the advantage he has in the time trial, the time differences mean that Contador et al. simply have to go on the attack in the mountains.
Bad day Bardet
You had a bad day, Bardet. A very bad day.
First he failed not only to make the first group caused by the echelons, but also the second. Then, when he bridged across, he was involved in a crash late on.
Riding back to the group, the Frenchman was spotted clearly drafting vehicles as he attempted to get back in the quickest time.
He may have crossed the line alongside Porte, so in a superior time to Contador, but if he expected sympathy for his tough day in the saddle and his grazed knees, then it wasn’t forthcoming. The race jury saw his drafting and disqualified him.
They are the rules, after all, but the UCI have struggled to enact their regulations in recent weeks. This felt, more than anything, of commissaires wanting to send out a message that they aren’t lenient and they are prepared to punish big name riders.