Blazin' Saddles: 5 talking points from Paris-Nice
After Spain's Marc Soler won an enthralling edition of Paris-Nice on Sunday, we take a look at the main talking points from the biggest race of the season so far. From French successes to another huge set-back for Team Sky – it's all here…
Soler-powered Paris-Nice proves no Race to the Sun
While the Beast From The East had eventually petered out after clashing with Storm Emma, the adverse weather that has hampered large parts of western Europe trickled down in a race usually defined by its southerly sun-seeking qualities. Rain and cold temperatures pretty much most days – and a meteorological maelstrom greeting the riders on the French Riviera – meant that the 76th edition of Paris-Nice was a gritty, demanding affair for all.
The final weekend alone saw one rider skid off the road into a ravine, and the whole peloton being forced wide to avoid a land-slide of rocks and mud.
Once the race hit the mountains there were frequent piles of snow on the side of the road while the Cote d'Azur wasn't so much bright blue but 50 shades of grey, pummelled by severe winds and torrential rain.
The upshot was that race leader Simon Yates rode most of the final stage with his yellow jersey covered by a black Mitchelton-Scott gilet – as if pre-empting his narrow four-second loss on GC to a man whose name at least alluded to the absent sunshine, Spain's Marc Soler of Movistar.
Vintage final stage gave Strade Bianche a run for its money
A week after snow and heavy rain combined to deliver an epic edition of Strade Bianche over the dirt roads of Tuscany, the challenging conditions facing riders on the short-but-sharp 110km final stage around Nice produced an even more thrilling tussle – both for the stage win and the yellow jersey.
With just 57 seconds separating the top eight riders going into Stage 8, the scene was set for fireworks over the six climbs on the agenda. And with less than 50km of the race remaining, Soler did his best Alberto Contador impression with a daring attack.
Trailing Yates by 37 seconds going into the stage, it was a case of all of nothing for the 24-year-old, who was joined by compatriots David de la Cruz and Omar Fraile to set up a grandstand finale over the Col d'Eze and Col de Quatres Chemins. Behind, a frantic chase ensued – disrupted when both Izagirre brothers went down on a tight hairpin bend.
Team Sky's De la Cruz took the instant spoils, denying Fraile by a whisker to deliver a second successive Stage 8 win in Nice. Soler crossed just behind to spark a tense wait as the chasers came home and Englishman Yates was denied on the Promenade des Anglais by just a handful of seconds. Unlike Strade Bianche, this was drama right to – and even beyond – the end.
Such was the success – once again – of the final day format in Nice, it was fitting, then, that 24 hours later, ASO announced that the city would host the Grand Depart of the 2020 Tour de France.
French foursome on song on home soil
In terms of stage wins, 2018 marked the most successful home edition of Paris-Nice in 42 years with Messieurs Demare, Hivert, Cousin and Molard all punching the air in joy.
What's more, these wins came in contrasting fashion. And the most slender was perhaps the most significant – with Arnaud Demare giving Groupama-FDJ a victory on their first official day of existence following the team's recent rebranding.
The French national champion won a sprint slugfest on the cobbles at Meudon to win in a photo finish ahead of Gorka Izagirre, Christophe Laporte and Tim Wellens in stage 1. With his third win in Paris-Nice in as many years, Demare also took the fabled yellow jersey to cap a dream start for new sponsor Groupama.
A few days later, Groupama-FDJ doubled up when Rudy Molard expertly broke clear of the leading break with just over one kilometre remaining, weaved his way all over the road like a man possessed, and held on to take a superb Stage 6 win at Vence.
In between the two wins for Marc Madiot's men, fellow French outfit Direct Energie bagged a brace with intriguing moves from breakaways. First up, Jonathan Hivert got the better of compatriot Remy Di Gregorio and Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez in Stage 2 at Chatel-Guyon, the Astana rider settling for the yellow jersey as 32-year-old Hivert secured the biggest scalp of his career.
But the most controversial win came two days later at Sisteron when Hivert's dastardly team-mate Jerome Cousin played his cards right to secure both the polka dot jersey and the Stage 5 win at the expense of Germany's Nils Politt of Katusha-Alpecin.
After Cousin had reeled in fellow escapee Politt on the final climb, the Frenchman ignored the German's calls for him to help with the pace-setting, choosing instead to sit on his back wheel until, with the peloton closing in, delivering the killer blow on the home straight.
For some it was a tactical masterclass from a canny rider who later claimed he's "played with [Politt's] balls a little" having admitted he'd lost out himself too many times "in similar circumstances".
That wasn't how Politt's team saw the situation, though, with one staff member not mincing his words when confronting the Frenchman at the finish.
Sky's fall mirrored in Poels' plight
With a dank blanket of grey covering the sky pretty much the entire week, it was suitably fitting that the same fate was reserved for Team Sky. Overall winners last year through Sergio Henao, Sky boasted one of the race favourites in Wout Poels in 2018. But the old adage of 'when it rains it pours' rang true after the beleaguered British outfit saw their chances disappear in one slippery skid.
Just 24 hours after talking up his form and chances in the forthcoming Giro d'Italia, Dutchman Poels missed a tight left-hand bend on the 70kmph descent of the Cote de la Colle sur Loup, 7km from the finish of Stage 6, and was ruled out of the race with a broken collarbone.
Before the stage, Poels had crept up to 15 seconds of Luis Leon Sanchez's yellow jersey by virtue of his winning performance in the 18.4km ITT to Saint-Etienne. But two days later, his chances were in a heap on the side of the road as Rudy Molard zipped to victory in Vence.
It was a double disappointment for Sky because not only was Poels looking every bit the contender for the yellow jersey in Nice, the 30-year-old is now a question mark for the Giro where he was headed as a bona fide Plan B in the light of the ongoing fall-out from the Chris Froome scandal.
In Poels' absence, defending champion Henao – just 46 seconds down after Stage 6 – faded fast on the final weekend, eventually dropping out of the top ten and finishing more than four minutes down on Soler in Nice.
Still, there was a ray of light for Sky with the second successive Stage 8 win for David de la Cruz in Nice, the Spaniard moving up into the top ten as a result.
Absence of big stars only made the race better
If the retirement of habitual Paris-Nice animator Alberto Contador left a big void in the Race to the Sun, then the aggressive riding of his compatriots Soler, Fraile, de la Cruz and the Izagirre brothers – plus the excellent Simon Yates and ever-present Tim Wellens – meant the Spaniard was not missed too much.
And while the likes of Richie Porte, Dan Martin and Chris Froome stayed away from Paris-Nice this year, their absence was never so readily felt, in a race which saw attacking riding every day despite the poor conditions.
In fact, seeing the Froome circus play out across the border in Tirreno-Adriatico must have been music to the ears of race organisers ASO – proof, once again, that until his case is sorted, the four-time Tour champion really shouldn't be riding competitively.
With the big stars in another galaxy, it was a chance for the usual support crew and the upcoming talent to take centre stage – and the likes of Soler and Yates delivered the goods. Indeed, a lot has been said about Movistar's attacking trident of Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa, but Soler – considerably younger than them all – could ultimately prove the biggest talent.
There's good reason why people talk of Soler as an heir to Contador – and the 24-year-old's biggest maiden GC win of his career showed just why everyone in Spain is getting so excited.
Meanwhile, the race may have only delivered one regular sprint – but Dylan Groenewegen's supreme Stage 2 victory ahead of Elia Viviani and Andre Greipel underlined why the Dutchman is the in-form sprinter so far this season.
The likes of Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan may be racing elsewhere – with Mark Cavendish spending too much time recovering from nasty crashes and Alexander Kristoff all but absent in France – but LottoNL-Jumbo's Groenewegen has already done enough this season to suggest that last year's Champs-Elysees victory was far from a fluke.
Groenewegen is the in-form sprinter of the spring, far out-doing his more illustrious rivals so far this season. Could we be witnessing a changing of the guard this year? Time will tell.