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The battered and bruised survivors of the Paris-Nice peloton thankfully pedaled into hillier terrain Wednesday. Typically, a demanding stage like the five-climb route from Vichy to Pélussin across the edge of the Massif Central would be the bane for everyone. But steep climbs will come as a relief following the opening three stages at the “Race to the Sun.”
Howling winds, cold temperatures and a rash of ugly and dangerous crashes have turned Paris-Nice into one of the most brutal races in recent years.
“We just managed to survive,” said Ag2r La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet after stage 2. “That was one of my hardest three days ever on a bike.”
That sentiment echoed around the Paris-Nice peloton. Through the opening three stages, there have already been 11 abandons, most of them due to crashes.
Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First) crashed out with a broken clavicle. Gorka Izagirre (Astana), third last year, suffered a head injury and temporarily lost consciousness. Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), the 2017 Tour de France king of the mountains, crashed out with a fractured cervical spine. The early exit of Barguil, who was transported to a hospital on a stretcher and neck brace, could have major implications as his team is hoping to earn one of two remaining wild-card invitations for the Tour.
“It was a hard crash,” Barguil said. “It’s frustrating because I worked so hard to get to my best condition, but it could have been much worse. The first [injury] reports were very alarming.”
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) crashed so hard and suffered a concussion that a Sunweb sport director said it brought back horrible images of the death of Michael Goolaerts who died during last year’s Paris-Roubaix of apparent heart failure. His teammate Martijn Tusveld broke his jaw in a separate crash on the same day.
Bad weather is nothing new to Paris-Nice. Cold and snow often plague the opening stages as the race pushes across the bleak winter landscapes of northern and central France. Several editions have been affected by snow, including most recently in 2016.
Rain often is another all too familiar element in France’s late-winter climate, including last year’s wet and dreary edition. Wind, too, is typical in the opening stages of Paris-Nice.
In fact, the gloom of northern France is part of the charm and allure of Paris-Nice, which invariably lives up to its moniker of the “Race to the Sun.” After a few cold and wintry days, by the time the peloton pedals out of the Massif Central and into Provence, spring is in full bloom and the contrast could not be sharper.
This year, however, seems particularly brutal.
Tailwinds and crosswinds buffeted the peloton in the opening three stages, creating spectacular echelons but also creating havoc and stress in the bunch. Monday’s stage had a furious average speed of nearly 51kph.
Some GC contenders have shown deft bike-handling skills in the wind, most notably Egan Bernal (Sky) who continues to impress.
The brutal conditions have punished more than a few overall contenders, however, including 2017 overall winner Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates), more than 15 minutes back. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), defending champion Marc Soler (Movistar), and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) did not survive the meat-grinder of the opening three stages, and all sit nearly 10 minutes back or more. Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates) abandoned with illness, as did Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), who is recovering from Epstein Barr virus.
Following Monday’s stage, Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett posted a photo of blisters on his hand on his Instagram account, adding, “My soft climbing hands are not made for this hard-man style of racing — one of the hardest days I can remember on the bike.”
The weather seems to be breaking. Wednesday’s forecast calls for relatively light winds, cool temperatures and a slight chance of rain. By Thursday’s time trial, the course dips into Provence, where sunny skies await. The real suffering begins with the summit finale to Col de Turini in the Alpes-Maritime. At least that will be pain caused by climbing.