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Paris-Nice: Primož Roglič finally breaks his curse

Kate Wagner picks apart the key moments from a gripping edition of the 'Race to the Sun'.

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On the very first day of Paris-Nice, at the base of the last category 3 climb, Nathan van Hooydonck of Jumbo Visma took a pull, his last of the day.

As Van Hooydonck faded away, that pull was in turn taken up by his new teammate Christophe Laporte, as though the two were in a gym class relay match. Then Wout van Aert. Then Primož Roglič. Then, they were alone at the front. A little bit of muscle and clever maneuvering from Jumbo-Visma had turned a lumpy and potentially chaotic stage into a team time trial. Laporte, for his efforts, took the win, and France was given the treat of seeing a Frenchman in the maillot jaune. Roglič took second, van Aert, third. Twitter likened the finish photo to that of the famous Mapei 1-2-3 in the 1996 Paris-Roubaix, though a podium sweep in a monument is arguably a far more impressive achievement. Still, it was a raid.

Also read: Philippa York – It’s UAE versus Jumbo while Ineos and the rest look on

A statement, of strength and intent. Twenty nine-seconds were pilfered from the general classification. All Jumbo-Visma had to do after that was hold the line to the end. Were Paris-Nice more predictable and more stable, it would’ve been over the same day it started. But Paris-Nice is not predictable. It remains one of the most volatile races in the cycling calendar, combining hills and high mountains, and most notoriously, technical descents, often in the rain. Paris-Nice is one of the few races where it truly is not over until it is over. Though you can’t fault Jumbo-Visma for trying, after what happened in 2021, when Roglič crashed out twice on the final day after wearing the yellow jersey all week.

Another 1-2-3

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Wout van Aert wearing the green points jersey while time trialing on stage 4 of the 2022 Paris-Nice. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

The team consolidated their dominance once more in the stage 4 time trial. Again, the team swept the podium: Wout van Aert, Primož Roglič, and Rohan Dennis in that order. Boom. Done.

When van Aert won over Roglič by just a few seconds, Roglič posted cheekily on Instagram that “Wout can do everything.” Keep that in your back pocket. Meanwhile, however, a subplot emerged.

Simon Yates, of Bike-Exchange Jayco, had ridden the time trial of his life, gaining a remarkable sixteen positions on the GC, which placed him well within striking distance of the podium at 49 seconds down right before the terrain in which he excelled: the high mountains.

In 2018, Simon Yates almost won this race. On the penultimate day, he’d snatched the stage and the yellow jersey on the summit of La Colmiane only to lose it all twenty-four hours later to Marc Soler, then of Movistar, by an agonizing four seconds. Hence, we had on our hands a classic story of David, which is to say Simon, and Goliath, which is to say Jumbo-Visma.

Read more:

Of course, in all stage races, many subplots emerge. Perhaps the most overarching storyline, and one with the largest impact, was the outbreak of flu and respiratory illness that ravaged the peloton the entire week. No more than 59 finishers would cross the final finish line in Nice.

Nairo Quintana seeing his best form of the last few years was another subplot, though his GC campaign was decimated by a poor time trial, the results of which ultimately put him fourth overall. Meanwhile, Ineos Grenadiers had brought Adam Yates (Simon’s brother) as leader only for him to be usurped by Dani Martínez, a man who also rode a hell of a time trial that day in Montluçon.

One could point to the charismatic Mathieu Burgaudeau (Total Energies) who won stage 6 from a nine-kilometer breakaway that almost got caught with 250 meters to go. Or to Mads Pedersen and Fabio Jakobsen who showed sparkling form this close to classics season with their wins on stages two and three, respectively. Perhaps some words should be devoted also to UAE Team Emirates, the team that had “Mapei’d” the Trofeo Laigueglia just a week before. Expectations were high at Paris-Nice, especially for a team roster that boasted João Almeida and a voracious Brandon McNulty.

McNulty’s solo win on stage 5 brought something home and helped defer the post-time trial tension in the peloton another day. In the end, while Almeida would walk away with the young rider’s jersey, and his teammates would share the team classification, the anticipated knock-down-drag-out showdown between the two new great powers in cycling: Jumbo Visma and UAE Team Emirates, would have to wait.

Before we knew it, all eyes were on the last two stages: the queen stage terminating on the Col de Turini, and stage 8, whose technical, nervy parcours promised the same chaos that claimed Roglič so violently the year before.

On stage 7, questions began to arise. Jumbo Visma, who had seemed impenetrable the final six days, had been whittled down to Rohan Dennis as Roglič’s sole helper with just ten kilometers remaining in the race. Wout van Aert had dropped surprisingly early and Kruijswijk, the only pure climber on the team, withered away. In the resulting endgame, a group of favorites emerged: Quintana, both Yates brothers, Martínez, and Roglič. Ineos, left with Adam Yates and Martínez, had to make a decision. Someone had to sacrifice themselves to try and drop Roglič.

It ended up being Yates on the chopping block, but when the others caught up, Yates sunk like a stone. The next victim was Quintana, who simply couldn’t hold the wheel. At 800 meters to go Martínez finally sprung forward, his body rocking from side to side as the agonizing climb neared its conclusion. Yet no one could touch Primož Roglič, who shattered all of them right at the very end. Simon Yates, who finished two seconds behind Martínez that day, said of Roglič after the stage: “He’s not even breathing while everyone else is panting like they’re on their death beds.” A resplendent Primož Roglič armed with dominant team, a resurgent and determined Simon Yates, a still-adapting Ineos Grenadiers running their very strong plan B, and a Nairo Quintana who’s not ready to hang up the wheels yet: these were the characters in play as we reach the climax of our story.

Paris-Nice endgame

Simon Yates missed out on GC but scooped stage honors with his monster move. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

On the final day of Paris-Nice, the conditions of last year had almost identically reproduced themselves: Roglič and Jumbo Visma in the lead, wet roads, a tricky parcours, and a GC tight enough for something to go really, really wrong. The only thing our Slovene protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your interpretation of the situation) needed to do was not crack and not crash. This shouldn’t have been a tall order. A buffer of a minute should have been more than enough. On paper: Roglič should win this. There were a lot of “shoulds.”

With 50 kilometers to go, the Jumbo-Visma super team— after a monster, day-long pull that suffocated the very inkling of a breakaway — stopped looking so super. One by one they dropped like flies. When Omar Fraile of Ineos Grenadiers took the front on behalf of Adam Yates and Dani Martínez, only Wout van Aert remained with Roglič. This proved to be the one difference between last year and this one. Last year, van Aert was tilting at windmills as a GC man in Tirreno-Adriatico. In the Paris-Nice finale, he was the only teammate Roglič had for help as the race neared the finish. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Martínez, not Adam Yates, who attacked with 48 kilometers to go. Martínez had dropped his own teammates, and the final selection was made: Martinez, Quintana, Simon Yates, van Aert, and Roglič. The race had entered its endgame.

Rain poured sideways in sheets. Disc brakes howled and moaned as corners were taken white-knuckled. In such treacherous terrain, a minute opened up between leaders and chasers. Yates, crucially, took three bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint, followed by Martínez and van Aert. Roglič took none. Just 10 kilometers later, the race reminded us that sometimes bike racing is a cruel and senseless sport, one as dependent on luck as it is on strength and cunning. Martínez, after all that fighting, suffered a rear wheel puncture. He never saw the front of the race again. While Martínez would retain his third place GC spot, the question remained of what could have happened had he not gotten a flat.

The remaining four reached the foot of the Col d’Eze, the final climb. 6.5 kilometers at 7.1 percent gradient. Quintana tried first, unsuccessfully. Then a stalemate, wary and watching.

Perhaps when Simon Yates attacked with 19 kilometers remaining, he thought of the time he almost won Paris-Nice — indeed was winning — only to lose it on bonus seconds. In 2022, he had to seize the damn thing from below. Yates probably thought — if not outwardly expected — Primož Roglič to go with him. Quintana and van Aert would be the victims. But this didn’t happen. Roglič, on the final day of Paris-Nice, couldn’t follow. Yates did not look back. He pulled out of thin air a remarkable 21 seconds, stretched it to almost thirty at the height of his advantage, more than halving Roglič’s GC lead. With Quintana gone, all Primož Roglič had was Wout van Aert and four kilometers of punishing climbing. This was not the Slovene’s only difficulty that day. Earlier, Roglič almost crashed twice, once trying to take off his leg warmers, and again when van Aert took a sketchy line through some bollards on a descent. By that point, things seemed to be truly falling apart for Primož Roglič, almost an exact replica of last year’s tragedy.

Hence, we arrive at the curse.

Roglič’s curse of being in the leader’s jersey at a French stage race only to lose that race horrifically on the final day was a pattern first established in the 2020 Criterium du Dauphine, where he decided to head home rather than stick out the final stage with injuries from a prior crash. It continued through that infamous 2020 Tour de France loss to Tadej Pogačar on La Planche des Belles Filles, the bloody crashes in last year’s Paris-Nice, and a wipe-out on stage 3 of last year’s Tour. Roglič’s downfall in France became the stuff of lore in cycling writing, a repeatable template of defeat. Many speculated whether this misfortune is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a psychological burden weighing on the shoulders of a man who walks a fine line between unstoppable and fallible. When asked earlier in the day about the ghost of last year’s loss, Roglič simply said in one of his usual enigmatic aphorisms: “The past does not decide the future, huh?”

The French philosopher Roland Barthes once said of the Tour de France in his book Mythologies: “The dynamics of the Tour knows only four movements: to lead, to follow, to escape, to collapse.” Throughout this edition of Paris-Nice, Roglič embodied all at once. “To lead is the most difficult action,” wrote Barthes, “but also the most useless. To lead is always to sacrifice oneself; it is pure heroism, destined to parade character much more than assume results.” Indeed, watching the time gap from Yates to Roglič shrivel meter by meter made for a surreal spectacle, one of total disbelief. And yet, with Roglič, stayed Wout van Aert. What followed was a remarkable act of selflessness and camaraderie: van Aert buried himself for his beleaguered comrade, sat up for him when he dropped, pulled him in the rain and the wind. For van Aert, such an effort was also a profound gift, considering that the Belgian expressed his intent to conserve energy for the upcoming classics season. Yet here he was, pulling Primož Roglič like a dog on a leash.

And what of Simon Yates, an equally sympathetic character on his way to securing one of the biggest results of his career? Forget stage four, the final stage of the 2022 Paris-Nice was the time trial of his life. The power to inflict misery now belonged to him. And unlike Roglič, Yates had no super team to break things up day by day. Yates didn’t have huge reserves of cash and wind tunnel access and long training camps at altitude at his disposal. Usually, once the gradients ticked up past a certain percent, Yates only had himself. By all means, he played the role of an underdog here, piercing the armor of Slovenian dominance the cycling world had gotten a bit sick of after Tadej Pogačar’s raiding of the proverbial cookie jars of Strade Bianche and Tirreno Adriatico, two normally dynamic races he smothered with resolute displays of power.

Like Pogačar, Roglič has become the intimidating villain against whom teams stack their rosters. Until, (and unlike Pogačar) he isn’t. In that moment, struggling to keep the wheel of van Aert, Roglič became human again. He, not Simon Yates, ended up being the one who couldn’t breathe. The Col d’Eze was his death bed. There is a succinct line wedged in a poem by Srečko Kosovel that aptly describes the situation in which Roglič found himself: “What you need / you receive in suffering.” What Roglič needed was to make it to the top with his advantage intact. What he received for this was labored, seemingly endless suffering. He lost Wout’s wheel. He weaved all over the road. He puked on himself a little. His was the washed-out face of a haunted man. For every Roglič story, four possible endings exist: total victory (like the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country), total collapse (like the 2021 Paris-Nice), redemption (like the 2021 Olympic time trial), and resilience (like the 2020 Vuelta, which he won by a nail-biting 24 seconds.) As the pair reached the top of the climb, it was the last of these that prevailed. The rain cleared up a bit. Nice became visible in the gaps between rocky outcrops. Roglič started taking pulls on the front, van Aert shepherded him on the descent. The gap shrunk. In the final few kilometers, they could even begin to see Yates as he took each turn. For Yates, this raid was worth trying. The payoff could have been massive. It still was in that Simon Yates, cold and wet and exhausted crossed the line first, taking the stage win on what turned out to be the most demanding day of all. Yates and Roglič both gave everything and walked away with something.

Primož Roglič, his face wan, his eyes wide and startled, had finally won Paris-Nice. In doing so, he broke the “curse of France.” Roglič climbed off his bike and embraced Wout van Aert to whom he owed everything. The question to be asked is: why did things transpire this way? How could Roglič cave after such a show of strength the day prior? The simplest answer is: he cooked himself. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the legs. All other explanations are matters of speculation. Whether the pressure to end the drought in France or the weight of his previous catastrophic losses were a heavy burden on him, we can’t know for sure, and one doubts he’ll ever tell us. The curse of France, of course, wasn’t real. This victory proved that. But in a way, it was real. It existed within our collective imaginaries as a way to interpret events that seemed irrational. It explained how one of the best cyclists in the world could suffer such inexplicable, titanic failures. Now that the curse has been lifted, we can move on. A new chapter can begin, the space can be made for new mythologies to form. This is the first day of narrative liberation. Perhaps Primož Roglič, too, believes this. Perhaps he doesn’t. What matters is that he was right. The past does not decide the future.

Or, at least, it doesn’t have to.