Egan Bernal might be even better than we thought
Egan Bernal follows in the footsteps of Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and Sergio Henao to become the fifth different Sky rider in eight years to win Paris-Nice.
It’s an illustrious list of riders, but Bernal might just be the most talented of the lot.
The young Colombian has been majorly hyped as cycling’s next big thing over the past few years, and he stepped up another level this week to win what is the biggest result of his career so far.
What really stood out was how Bernal, at the age of just 22, already looks a complete, fully-formed rider, with no obvious weakness. He went blow-for-blow alongside Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the mountain top finish, was among the best performers of the GC riders in the time trial, and – perhaps most astoundingly of all – stuck around with riders several kilos heavier than him during the crosswind chaos of the early stages.
With the might of Ivan Sosa and Michał Kwiatkowski (who also rode a fantastic race to finish third) to support him when Quintana put him under pressure on the final stage, Bernal could also call upon the services of the best team in the race, all of which made him look pretty much untouchable throughout the race.
Looking ahead to future races, the best riders in the world will be scratching their heads wondering how this new prodigy is going to be beaten.
Nairo Quintana shows hints of best form
Given the way his 2018 season petered out with below par showings at both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, it was great to see Nairo Quintana (Movistar) looking something like his old self again at Paris-Nice.
It was clear the Colombian was primed for the fight when he managed to successfully navigate the early stage crosswinds, and only Egan Bernal could match him on the race’s key mountain top finish, after which he moved to second overall.
Even more encouragingly, the Colombian made it clear that he was not content to settle for a runner-up finish when, on the final stage, he channelled the spirit of his old rival Alberto Contador by attacking 47km from the finish. The move might not have ultimately been successful, with Quintana gaining enough time to move up to second overall rather than first, but it certainly had Bernal and Sky under pressure.
Given how Quintana has shown flashes of his former brilliance during his current underwhelming spell it’s too early to jump to conclusions – he’ll need to show more consistency before we can confidently declare that the old Quintana is back. But the signs this week were promising.
Can Bora-Hansgrohe afford to overlook Sam Bennett?
Sam Bennett has already voiced his disapproval at the decision of his Bora-Hansgrohe team not to select him for either the Giro or the Tour this season, and at Paris-Nice, he backed up his words with his legs, sprinting to two fine stage wins to remind his employers what they’ll be missing out on.
Despite winning three stages at the Giro last year, Bora are favouring the emerging German star Paschal Ackerman for bunch sprints at the Italian Grand Tour this year, while Peter Sagan will lead the Tour de France team. That leaves Bennett with just the option of the Vuelta – something of a graveyard for sprinters, what with the number of uphill finishes and few opportunities for sprinters.
On the basis of his showing at Paris-Nice, however, Bennett is surely too good a rider not to be at the year’s two biggest races. The way he lead from the front to win stage six, and then came around Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) right at the line to win stage six, was a real demonstration of sprinting class, mached this week only by Dylan Groewnegen’s powerful opening two stage wins.
These performances in a world class field confirmed that Bennett is currently one of the best sprinters in the peloton. Can Bora-Hansgrohe really afford to snub him?
Simon Yates can time trial
One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Paris-Nice was the victory in the stage five time trial of a rider not noted for his ability against the clock – Simon Yates.
There were already signs of improved time trialling from the Mitchelton-Scott rider last year, especially at the Giro and Vuelta, where he performed better than expected to limit his losses while in the pink and red jersey respectively.
But this was the first ever career win in a time trial for Yates, and an indication that time trials might even become a chance for him to gain time over rivals.
One weakness that was exposed, however, was a dislike for crosswinds. With his lightweight build, it’s more difficult for a rider like Yates to cope with echelons when they form, and indeed he was blown backwards on stage two, where he lost over six minutes in the windy conditions.
That time loss took away any chance for the 26-year-old to compete for the overall, but he produced a memorable performance overall, first with the time trial win, then through an aggressive, attacking ride on stage seven’s summit finish at Col de Turini, where he finished fourth behind the impressive Daniel Martínez (EF Education First).
Paris-Nice never fails to disappoint
Paris-Nice is reliably one of the best races on the calendar, and the 2019 edition was no exception.
It had everything. What might have been processional sprinter stages in the first few days became full-on GC battles in the windy conditions, with multiple GC contenders already taken out of contention.
The middle stages developed the overall race nicely and produced a variety of excitement, including some tightly-fought bunch sprints, an absorbing contest for a stage win among breakaway specialists won by Magnus Cort (Astana), a dynamic time trial, and an exciting summit finish.
Then, as is becoming an annual pattern at Paris-Nice, the final stage became an explosive, tense and finely balanced contest between a long-range attacker going for glory (Quintana) and the yellow jersey digging in (Bernal).
Bernal’s eventual winning margin of 39 seconds over Quintana might not have been quite as tight as recent edition, but overall this was another thrilling edition of the Race to the Sun.