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NICE, France (VN) — Despite winning E3 Harelbeke last year, Geraint Thomas (Sky) is turning his back on the classics, and putting everything into stage racing. So far, that bet is paying off.
With Richie Porte now at BMC Racing, Thomas is determined to step up to fill the void as Sky’s go-to man in the mountains. In July, he’ll be riding to help Chris Froome try to win a third yellow jersey, but this spring, he’s taking full advantage in his chances to lead.
After easing into the season at the Santos Tour Down Under, he won the Volta ao Algarve in February, and rode into the Paris-Nice lead in Saturday’s queen stage. He is now just one stage away from winning the overall.
“There is a lot more pressure coming on me this year,” Thomas said. “We’re expected to be there. It’s a tough day tomorrow, but I know the roads really well.”
Everything was up for grabs in Saturday’s seven-climb stage in the steep mountains around Nice. After nearly a week of cold, frigid weather, the sun popped out, and the GC riders were ready to roll in Paris-Nice’s first major climbs. With overnight leader Michael Matthews (Orica – GreenEdge) dropped on the penultimate climb, Thomas knew a strong ride would put him into the yellow jersey. Thomas was nipped at the line by Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), but he rolled across ahead of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and his other rivals. Now he leads the race, with a 15-second advantage over Contador. Mission nearly accomplished.
“Probably tomorrow is the biggest day of my career so far,” Thomas said. “There’s pressure being a leader in Sky, but it’s more pressure on myself and wanting to win.”
Sunday’s vertiginous finale is no walk in the park, with the first-category Col d’Eze and a technical descent to Paris in the final 20km.
Contador all but threw in the towel.
“Tomorrow it’s a complicated stage to try to take back time,” Contador said. “We’ll certainly try, but Sky is looking strong. It won’t be easy.”
On Saturday, Sky drove hard coming into the final 15km climb to La Madone d’Utelle when Tinkoff’s Rajal Majka set a blistering pace to trim the group down to a baker’s dozen halfway up the climb. Contador attacked with 6km to go, at one point gapping Thomas, but Sky’s Sergio Henao was all over him, pacing Thomas up to the former two-time winner.
Defending champion Porte also followed, and then the surprising Zakarin bridged across from a chasing group with 2km to go. Contador tried again in the final kilometer, then Thomas surged, only to have the Russian pip him for the win. Thomas had to settle for second place and the leader’s jersey.
“It was a perfect day, apart from the win,” Thomas said. “Sergio was incredible. He was really committed to me.”
The trimmer and fitter Thomas showed grace under fire Saturday, and was not intimidated by the mantle of leadership or squaring off against Contador and Porte.
“This is the only time I’ve raced against Contador. In the past, I’ve been riding for Froome,” Thomas said. “And Richie was one of the best one-week racers in the world last year. There’s a hell of a lot of good riders there.”
Winning Paris-Nice would be the biggest win of his road career. Second last year at the Tour de Suisse, Thomas is ready to prove he’s up to the task of leading Team Sky, which has won Paris-Nice three out of the past four years. No pressure there.