Blazin' Saddles: Seven things we learned from 2019 Paris-Nice
As the wind finally settles on Paris-Nice, our blogger Felix Lowe weighs in with the main talking points from yet another enthralling edition of the Race to the Sun: from crosswind chaos to a Bernal Bonanza – via some scintillating sprinting from Messrs Groenewegen and Bennett, plus an unlikely time trial scalp for Simon Yates…
Bora-Hansgrohe must back down over Bennett
Eyebrows were raised when Bora-Hansgrohe announced at the start of the season that they would back the German champion Pascal Ackermann over Ireland's Sam Bennett in this year's Giro – not least because Bennett won three stages in last year's edition.
Sure, being a German team, it made sense of sorts for the sponsors to show their support for the young national champion, Ackermann. But Bennett's scintillating form so far this season may force his team into a rethink.
Ackermann has just the one win to his name this year, at the relatively minor Clasica de Almeria. Bennett, on the other hand, entered Paris-Nice with wins at San Juan and the UAE Tour to his name – and then didn't disappoint in the Race to the Sun.
If Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Bora-Hansgrohe) kicked things off with two dominant wins in the wind, it was Bennett who arguably emerged as the most prolific sprinter with a brace of wins of his own.
His victory in stage 6 was all the more impressive, coming as it did after a number of tough climbs and then, on the home straight, with Bennett apparently boxed in by the barriers. But the soft-spoken Irishman kept his cool and darted around the wheel of Arnaud Demare to take a magnificent victory in Brignoles.
The grace with which Bennett has gone about his Giro snub speaks volumes for the class of the 28-year-old, who has let his legs do the talking while always speaking politely of his team and team-mates.
If his victories in Paris-Nice have underlined his status as a dark horse for this Saturday's Milan-Sanremo, then they should also have Bora-Hansgrohe management looking at ways in which they can accommodate both him and Ackermann at the Giro. For it would be a huge shame if we were not to see Bennett compete for Grand Tour wins until August's Vuelta.
Indeed, with Bennett's contract running out at the end of the season, it may not be long before we see the Irish sprinter unleashed on the Tour. With this form, it's the very least he deserves.
But Groenewegen is still the man to beat on the Tour
Dylan Groenewegen's complete armoury was unleashed in Paris-Nice, the Dutch powerhouse showcasing his ability to perform in severe crosswinds before outsprinting those set against him – breaking records in the process.
At this rate, the 25-year-old will be among the favourites to don the first yellow jersey of the 2019 Tour de France in Brussels. His big rivals Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria were not racing in France – and the competition will be huge come July – but Groenewegen put in another timely reminder that he's not the future of bunch sprints, he's the present, and many of his former rivals could well be the past.
Astana mean business ahead of the Giro
For all the talk of Deceuninck-QuickStep's mastery this season, it's the Kazakh-funded Astana team who lead the way now with 19 victories against the Wolfpack's 17 (or make that 18 following Julian Alaphilippe's latest win in Tirreno-Adriatico on Monday).
As Denmark's in-form Jakob Fuglsang was riding to glory over the border in Tirreno-Adriatico on Sunday, it was Astana's new recruit Ion Izagirre who soloed to glory in Nice on Sunday – making it three WorldTour wins in two days following Alexey Lutsenko's heart-in-mouth win at Tirreno on Saturday.
And it could well have been four: Miguel Angel Lopez missing out to fellow Colombian Daniel Martinez (EF Education First) on Saturday's summit finish on the Col de Turini.
While Astana's best placed rider in the general classification was Luis Leon Sanchez – more than three minutes down in ninth place – the results of the team bode well for the challenges ahead.
Lopez, whose overall chances were scuppered in the crosswinds early in the race, finished on the third step of the podium in both the Giro and Vuelta last year – and the 25-year-old will be going all-in for pink come May.
Further success this week came from Magnus Cort, who outfoxed Thomas De Gendt to win from a breakaway in stage 4 to Pelussin to underline his versatility and form. Despite the disappointment of Izagirre's brother Gorka crashing out of the race early on, there's no doubting that the team is in rude health ahead of the challenges of spring and beyond.
Simon Yates is not the new Tony Martin
After the first time trial win of his career, Britain's Simon Yates has not all of a sudden become the new Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara.
That's not to say that Yates's win was not extremely encouraging ahead of his tilt at the Giro; the ever-improving 26-year-old has clearly been working hard on his against-the-clock racing, as emphasised by the solid ITT which secured him last year's Vuelta crown.
But to win over the 25.5km course at Barbentane, Yates bean the German Nils Politt – a rider with no real time trial pedigree – and Michal Kwiatkowski, for whom keeping hold of the yellow jersey ahead of the key mountain stages was the primary task in hand.
Yates's troubles in the crosswinds may have cost him the chance to compete for yellow in Paris-Nice, and his triumph in the stage 5 ITT kept up his record of winning in every stage race since (and including) last year's Paris-Nice. But a single ITT win won't be having Tom Dumoulin quaking in his boots ahead of the Giro and its three races against the clock.
Future looks good for Team Ineos with Bernal et al
The British team did its talking on the bikes all week with some superlative riding in the crosswinds setting up a tilt at the title from both their men for the GC: Bernal and Kwiatkowski.
It was the Pole who wore yellow before cracking on the Col de Turini on Satuday, with Kwiatkowski still finishing third overall and taking the green jersey as Bernal took both yellow and white.
The overall victory was Sky's sixth win in Paris-Nice in eight years – none of which were posted by their main man, Chris Froome. If that's not strength in depth then the Pope's no Catholic.
Race to the Sun to be renamed Race from the Wind?
A blustery start – and middle – to the race kept fans entertained (and the peloton pulverised) in yet another enthralling edition of the eight-day race, which was instantly rendered vintage with the sight of echelons on the opening day.
If the use of finishing circuits heightened the enjoyment for local fans, they certainly showcased Thomas De Gendt's dry humour when the wind kept blowing into stage 2.
Team Sky were very much in their element as all 60kg of Egan Bernal showed himself to be quite the master of the crosswind – what with a little help of Michal Kwiatkowski and the crosswind king himself, Luke Rowe – aka Mr Echelon.
The sight of Rowe licking his finger before giving his colleagues a right licking on the bike provided perhaps the enduring image of a race which, at this rate, may well need a new moniker.
The point was indeed made many times: if only the Tour de France were just eight days long and held in between Paris and Nice during the month of March…
Final stage excitement to be recognised in the 2020 Tour
Talking of the Tour, it was announced on Monday that the Grand Depart of the 2020 Tour de France will be in Nice and will see the riders tackle two loop stages to and from Nice, including the mouth-watering prospect of mountains as early as day two.
Stage 1 features four short climbs but does not close the door on the sprinters, while stage 2 will shake up the general classification with ascents of both the Col de Turini and the famous Col d'Eze.
All this is high praise for the Race to the Sun, which has made it something of a tradition to finish with a road stage or time trial in Nice on the final day. And with TV figures for Sunday's final stage the largest since 2011, Tour organisers ASO are certainly tapping into the success of the Paris-Nice.
For as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery.