Crashes deny him yellow, but Roglič looks imperious
Although his initial emotion will no doubt be of disappointment as he reflects on losing the yellow jersey following two crashes on the final stage, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) should reflect on the 2021 Paris-Nice as a promising indication that he’s set for yet another excellent season.
Up until that dramatic final day, Roglič had been in another league compared to the rest of the field. Even on the shallow gradients of stage four’s mountain top finish at Chiroubles, which were too modest to cause gaps between any of the other major favourites, he was able to ride away from everyone and gain a significant lead on GC.
Even on stage six, on a parcours better-suited to punchy sprinters, he used his lethal finishing kick to defeat sprinters as quick as Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) to both win the stage and gain some more bonus seconds, before completing a remarkable hat-trick of stage wins within just four days with victory atop La Colmiane.
The way he squandered such a commanding hold of the overall lead might bring back memories of the shocking way last year’s Tour de France finished, but given how his problems this time were a consequence of some crashes, and how rarely he has gone down in crashes in the past, Roglič can perhaps be confident that this was an anomaly. The big picture suggests he’s in as good a shape as ever.
Schachmann proves last year’s victory was no fluke
He might not have done so in the circumstances he’d have liked, having to rely on Roglič’s final day crash, but Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) nevertheless managed to defend his Paris-Nice title.
Simply coming second behind Roglič on this kind of form is some achievement in itself, and Schachmann impressed behind the Slovenian throughout the week. He put himself into overall contention with a strong time trial, then moved up to second overall after being best-of-the-rest behind Roglič at Chiroubles, before finally remaining calm and composed during the frenetic finale to seal overall victory ahead of the Astana-Premier Tech duo of Alexander Vlasov and Ion Izagirre.
This was his first victory of any kind since overall victory here a year ago, partly due to the injuries sustained after being hit by a car at Il Lombardia last August.
If last year’s victory came as a surprise from a rider more renowned for individual stages and hilly Classics than for being a stage racer, this year proves he is indeed someone who can compete for GC. The Ardennes Classics will be a big target for him this spring, but look out for him in the other stage races to come — and possibly even the Grand Tours, too.
Sam Bennett gets better and better
Showing no signs of suffering from the proverbial ‘difficult second album’ syndrome, Sam Bennett so far looks even better than he did during his debut season at Deceuninck-Quick-Step last year.
Building upon the two stages won at the UAE Tour, he was triumphant in another couple of bunch sprints this week in France, bringing his overall season total to four — a tally that’s already over half of his overall haul for 2020.
Although a duel with last year’s most prolific sprinter, Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), was anticipated, ultimately it wasn’t much of a contest. Bennett was comfortably the quickest when the two went head-to-head for victory on the opening day, while Démare was nowhere to be seen when Bennett waltzed to his second success four days later.
Cees Bol (DSM) might have narrowly prevented Bennett from claiming a sweep of all three sprinter stages, but what was so impressive about the Irishman’s performance throughout the week was his rides in terrain unsuited to him. He was very nearly able to contest for the sprint finish on stage six’s uphill finish at Biot, surviving for much longer on the climb to the finish than the other pure sprinters, and even had the legs the following day to get into the break and ride at the front over the stage’s climbs.
Sprinting, and climbing, like this he’ll be a force to be reckoned with at Milan-San Remo next weekend — where he’ll have a great chance of landing what would be a first ever Monument victory.
Other teams fail to take the race to Roglič
Roglič’s individual superiority meant the onus was on other teams to use their imaginations to gain time into him, but for most of the race until the fateful crash the Slovenian was untroubled.
Ineos Grenadiers appeared to be the best-equipped to do so, but their race got off to a disastrous start when Richie Porte abandoned on the opening stage, followed by Tao Geoghegan Hart three days later.
Instead, Astana-Premier Tech emerged as the team most likely to give Roglič and Jumbo-Visma problems, as their duo of Alexander Vlasov and Ion Izagirre went into the final weekend in third and fourth overall.
However, they opted to ride defensively to secure podium finishes rather than race to win, choosing to follow wheels rather than use their numerical advantage to try to put pressure on Roglič. By the time Roglič was dropped following his crash, they had run out of road, and neither rider was able to drop Schachmann to claim overall victory.
Second and third overall was still a good result, but, given that the team remains one of only three in the WorldTour (along with Movistar and Intermarché – Wanty – Gobert Matériaux) still without a win this season, they may regret not doing more to go for victory.
Young Swiss riders catch the eye
Not since Fabian Canellara was brutalising opponents at the Classics and in time trials has Switzerland had a genuine cycling star, but the performances of two young riders at Paris-Nice suggested that the nation’s future could be bright.
Stefan Bissegger produced a time trial that Cancellara himself would have been proud of to win stage three, just days before his 23rd birthday. The EF Education-Nippo rider had already made an eye-catching start to his first full season in the WorldTour when he finished second behind the imperious Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) in the time trial at the UAE Tour, and went one better in Gien.
Then on Saturday’s queen stage, 24-year-old Gino Mader (Bahrain-Victorious) came agonisingly close to claiming victory, only to be overtaken by a ruthless Roglič at the line. The two-time Tour de l’Avenir stage-winner had been the best of a strong breakaway that included esteemed climbers like Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo) and Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo), and the way he continued to stay out in front as Roglič and co bared down on him was seriously impressive. He might have been dramatically denied victory, but his time will surely come, and he did also succeed in finishing tenth overall.
Following the stunning emergence of Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates) last year, plus Marlen Reusser’s (Ale BTC Ljubljana) recent rise in the women’s peloton, could Swiss cycling be on the cusp of a new golden age?