ORLÉANS, France (VN) — Despite starting Sunday with a stellar, world-class GC list, the 70th Paris-Nice has been reduced to a three-horse race following Monday’s thrasher of a stage that saw an elite group of 21 riders make it to the finish line.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) climbed into the overall lead after overnight leader Gustav Larsson (Vacansoleil-DCM) missed the cut and tumbled to 22nd at 2:46 adrift after blustering crosswinds hammered the pack at the feed-zone midway through the 185.5km stage across the wind-swept flats south of Paris.
Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) climbed into second at six seconds back while Tejay van Garderen (BMC) slotted into fourth at 14 seconds back.
Other GC threats are still hovering close, with Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan) in sixth at 18 seconds back and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in 11th at 30 seconds back, but Wiggins now says the “Race to the Sun” is three-horse race.
“You had to have the legs to be in that group today,” Wiggins said, who pipped Valverde to win a three-second bonus in the day’s lone sprint in the final hour of racing. “I see Levi and Tejay as the two most dangerous rivals. Levi is always dangerous. You can never discount him. And Tejay is a strong, young rider. Valverde is still close, but there were a lot of big names who were not there.”
Wiggins is right. The pack started to splinter after the race rolled through the feed zone after hitting the day’s lone climb, the Cat. 3 Cote des Granges-le-Roi. Wide-open wheat fields offered little protection from cold, piercing westerly winds.
RadioShack was perhaps the day’s biggest victim, with former winner Andreas Klöden and both of the Schleck brothers missing the cut a day after Andy Schleck lost 1:02 in Sunday’s 9.4km individual time trial to open the race. Defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma) also missed the final moves while Rabobank had none of its riders in the front group.
Leipheimer had three bodyguards from Omega Pharma, with stage-winner Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Nikolas Maes, but “Tommeke” said it was a close call to make the front group.
“It was not us who split up the group,” Boonen said. “I was taking care of Levi and we got caught back in the group after we went the wrong way around a roundabout. We almost missed the breakaway. I had to pass two groups to get there with Levi. It was brutal out there today.”
Leipheimer, already a winner at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina to open the season, called Monday’s stage one of the hardest days he’s ever raced.
“Hard-core, but that’s about all I can say. We did the last 90km in the group. That was one of the legendary days of Paris-Nice. Those are the days that everybody is always afraid of,” Leipheimer told VeloNews in Orléans. “You don’t get much harder bike racing than that.”
Like everyone coming across the line, Leipheimer’s face wore the evidence of a brutal day in the pack, with mud and grit covering his body from head-to-toe. Wiggins edged Valverde at the day’s sprint, adding a three-second advantage to Leipheimer.
“That one caught me by surprise, Wiggins got it from Valverde, but we’re happy,” Leipheimer said. “I’d like to (win). Everyday is dangerous and you have to pay attention. Today was just one step toward Nice.”
Helping Wiggins was Sky teammate Geraint Thomas, back on the road after winning silver on the track in the team pursuit at the World Cup finale in London two weeks ago in a warm-up for the Summer Games in London. Thomas helped tow Wiggins through the day and said his team boss looks good for the win.
“I saw the Garmin boys moving to the front and I got on the radio and told our boys that Garmin are looking to do something,” Thomas told VeloNews. “They went hard; fortunately, me and Brad were there. We just rode all day. It was good that the Schlecks and people like that missed the move. It was more the fact that they weren’t there that we were driving rather than for the jersey. I think it was a great day. We wanted to keep our advantage from the time trial all the way to Mende and if an opportunity came to widen it, we would.”
Thomas climbed into the top-10 as well, but said he’s at the service of Wiggins, who Thomas says is motivated more than ever to win in Europe’s most important races.
“I saw Valverde coming up for the sprint and Bradley just rolled him. It was good to see,” Thomas continued. “Bradley is flying. We saw that yesterday, he rode in the wet and he was just one second off the win. We just have to keep him out of trouble. He’s got the legs to go with any split. I think it’s just Tejay and Levi really there.
“Bradley’s at a higher level. His legs are at a better level, but it’s his confidence that really matters. After what he did in the Vuelta, it really boosted the confidence. After winning the Dauphiné last year, he believes he can be up there. He really believes he can be at the front at any race he goes to.”
Van Garderen is quietly poised to play the spoiler against the more experienced Wiggins and Leipheimer. The BMC rider had Taylor Phinney protecting his flank throughout the stage as the young American pair rode right at the nose of the action all day long.
“It was just nervous, hectic, I definitely dodged a bullet by being up there. I have Taylor to thank big-time for that one. He pretty much drug me to the front,” van Garderen told VeloNews. “He’s like a bulldozer, he’s such a solid wheel to follow. He kind of babied me up there.”
Van Garderen said the move happened quickly and suddenly the numbers added up. Everyone who was there realized they had a chance to collectively drive home a decisive advantage and everyone pitched in, both the sprinters and the GC riders.
“It was after the feed-zone, we were going fast and whoever is here is, and it was done,” he said. “I was shocked to see a lot of guys were not there. It was a brilliant move to be in there, well, it wasn’t so brilliant, I was just lucky to have Taylor there to help me.”
More fun is in store Tuesday, with more cold, wind and rain in the forecast as the “Race to the Sun” plows into the Massif Central for three days of hilly, tough parcours that could produce more race-breaking splits.