Photographs: James Startt

While the coronavirus occupies nearly every headline, the Paris-Nice race still seemingly exists within its own bubble as it makes its way towards Nice. With only three days of racing remaining, what seemed unlikely even days ago, may well become a reality: Paris-Nice may actually finish in Nice.

Of course the race is affected by the world health crisis. Fans are nowhere to be seen at the start, and the start and finish protocol for riders are stripped-down affairs. The pandemic is on the minds of nearly everyone here, as many have family and friends are affected by it. But strangely, once the race actually started, Paris-Nice seems like just about any other bike race. And today’s stage 5, the longest, from Gannat to La Côte-Saint-André at the foot of the Alps was, at least on face value, a routine stage.

Almost immediately from the start, a four-man break jumped away on this 227-kilometer day. Slovenian strongman Jan Tratnik of the Barhain-McLaren team, was only caught with the finish line in sight.

In the end, the stage was reserved for sprinters, and the sprint teams had no desire to see the final flat stage slip away from them, before the race enters the mountains.

Just as the pack absorbed the last breakaway rider, Italian Niccolo Bonifazio of the Total-Direct Energie team powered away, easily claiming a huge victory for the French team. “It’s an important victory,” the mild-mannered rider said afterwards. “For the team it is a really important day, as well as Paris-Nice was one of the big objectives of the season, and it is satisfying for me as it shows that the work I did this winter really is paying off.”

But even in victory, Bonifazio underlined that while this may be a bike race, the reality of the coronavirus remains present. “You know in Italy it is a very difficult moment. And my own family is confined and doesn’t know when they can leave.” Indeed his victory, his second of the season, provides at least temporary relief from reality.