While it may be going too far to describe Team Sky’s defence of the yellow jersey as unruffled given the battering the nervy Paris-Nice peloton has taken from the elements this week, their progress towards a sixth victory in the last eight editions of “the race to the sun” had seemed assured until stage seven’s final climb of the Col de Turini.
A large breakaway group reached it first with an advantage of more than six minutes, which made Deceuninck’s Philippe Gilbert the leader on the road, with almost four minutes in hand on Sky leader Michal Kwiatkowski.
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“We knew the gap that we had to make up to retain the lead,” Sky DS Nicolas Portal told Cycling Weekly, “but it seems that Radio Tour focused more on giving gaps to the guys who were going for the stage victory than on Gilbert’s advantage and that meant it was pretty hard for us to make the right choice at the right moment.
“We were getting gaps on everyone except Gilbert. Initially, Kwiatkowski was all right, but you have to keep an eye on the time gaps and for a good five or six minutes there was nothing, and that was at exactly the time that Kwiatkowski was starting to be on the limit a little bit.”
With four kilometres remaining and Sky tyro Iván Sosa setting the pace ahead of him and Egan Bernal, Kwiatkowski told the two Colombians to push their pace up and to let him finish the Turini at his own tempo.
The final result saw Bernal take the leader’s jersey, with Kwiatkowski slipping to fourth overall.
“As the kilometres passed, the gap had been coming down, but not as much as I expected,” explained Bernal. “We were getting a bit concerned about the situation and with around three or four kilometres left, Kwiatkowski was very honest and said we should go harder and defend the jersey rather than letting it go to Gilbert.”
Even when they crossed the line, the Colombian pair had no idea whether they had done enough to keep the jersey in Sky’s hands. “We were still a bit confused about what was going on because we didn’t know the gaps, so we actually raced the last kilometre as if it were a time trial,” said Bernal.
Portal said he felt for Kwiatkowski given the breakdown in communications on the final climb.
“It’s a shame because it’s one of the biggest races in the world and we ended up in this situation,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for Kwiatkowski to enjoy this. He will have ridden up the rest of the climb thinking that he’s potentially lost everything. However, I don’t think he could have done much more.”
Bernal also expressed sympathy for his teammate. “He was the leader and he was the one who made the decision that Sosa and me should go. He’s also the one who’s had all of the pressure on his shoulders all week.
“I was sitting back in the pack, being protected in the cross-winds, and for that reason I didn’t consider going on the attack today. We’ve got a lot of respect for each other within this team,” he said.
Although the Colombian has once again produced a startling performance in a major stage race, notably in the cross-winds during its first half, he confessed it has taken a toll.
“This hasn’t been an easy race at all. It’s been very tough from the very first moment. There’s been a lot of stress in the peloton since the first day and I can’t compare it with any other race I’ve done before, with the wind, the tension and the level of the riders racing,” he said.
“In one way it has been easier on me because the pressure was on Kwiatkowski. If I’d been dropped at some point it wouldn’t have been that terrible for the team. He was the one who had to respond and I was like the second card. But it’s still been difficult. The riders are all very tired.”
Looking ahead to the final day, Portal sees third-placed Nairo Quintana as the main threat. “I think with a gap on 46 seconds on Quintana, Egan should be all right tomorrow. It’s always a tricky day, but that is quite a big gap for this final stage at Paris-Nice.
“I remember Alberto Contador was a similar distance behind in 2017, but he was a different rider, he had a different kind of style. I don’t expect Quintana to ride in that same way, but there’s no doubt Egan will be put under pressure,” said the French DS.