By Andrew Hood
Bobby Julich was beaming in the yellow jersey at Saturday morning’s sign-in protocol before the start of the penultimate stage at Paris-Nice.
The sun was shining, and with Julich holding a 19-second lead over Constantino Zaballa (Saunier Duval) and 20 seconds on Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), things were looking very bright indeed.
“My legs are feeling good. I think if the weather stays good, I will be able to keep the jersey to Nice,” Julich said. “Today’s stage is more challenging than what happens on Sunday. I know the roads perfectly there, so I am confident.”
There was some talk at Saturday’s start that the Spanish teams Saunier Duval, Illes Balears and Jörg Jaksche’s Liberty Seguros might gang up on Julich, but Team CSC boss Bjarne Riis said the team is convinced Julich will be able to hold off the Spanish armada.
“The others have to attack us and we have a very strong team, so the situation looks good for us now,” Riis said. “It should be enough of a gap. Mont Faron was the only summit finish, but the other stages they will have to attack us.”
Riis said he was proud to see Julich take the maillot jaune. The 1996 Tour champion helped resuscitate Julich’s career when he offered a contract for 2004 after several frustrating years for Julich.
“This is very important for Bobby. He deserves this. He’s worked so hard. I’m very happy for him,” Riis said. “It’s not a surprise that he’s leading. He’s our leader now. The others have to attack us and we have a very strong team, so the situation looks good for us now.”
One minor worry is the threat of time bonuses, with stage victories worth 10 seconds, especially with Valverde, who has the punch to win bunch sprints.
Saturday’s 184km sixth stage from La Crau to Cannes hits six rated climbs, including the Cat. 1 Col de Bourigaille with 54km to go and the Cat. 2 Cal du Tanneron with 20km to go. It’s a flat run along the posh Cannes beachfront to the finish and there was a strong tailwind blowing along the approach.
Sunday’s 135km circuit in Nice tackles a Cat. 2 early followed by the Cat. 1 Col de la Porte with 83km to go that’s typically a launching pad for stage-hunters. The final circuit hits the Cat. 1 Col d’Eze twice before a plunging descent to the Promenade des Anglais.
Spanish satisfied with podium view
Spanish challengers Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) and Constantine Zaballa (Saunier Duval) promise to keep on fighting but admitted that Paris-Nice race leader Bobby Julich is in an enviable position.
“When there’s life, there’s hope,” said Eusebio Unzue, sport director at Illes Balears. “There remains some terrain for some war, but we have to admit that Team CSC is looking very strong. We are going to try, but we are satisfied with how Paris-Nice has gone for us.”
Valverde came to Paris-Nice anxious to make a strong impression on foreign roads. All of his 24 career victories have come in Spain and the team wants to prove their star rider can win beyond the Iberian Peninsula.
“If we can finish on the podium at Paris-Nice with Valverde, that would be very important for the internationalization of his palmares,” Unzue said. “We’d like to still get a victory, but we’re satisfied with the podium.”
Valverde said he tried to attack Julich up Mont Faron, but could only slip away in the final 400 meters.
“Julich was very strong yesterday and he defended well,” Valverde said. “The pace was very high up Faron and there was no place to get away. When I finally did, it was too late to get too much time.”
Valverde’s international campaign gets serious in the upcoming spring classics, where he’ll race at Milan-San Remo and aim for victory in the Ardennes at Liège, Amstel Gold and Flèche.
Over at Saunier Duval, team manager Matxin Fernández said he would prefer to win a stage, but expressed satisfaction that the final podium is in sight.
“We tried to send Piepoli up the road to win the stage, but when Simoni made his attack it was obvious we weren’t going to win. We had a strong stage with (Jose Angel) Gomez, Piepoli and Zaballa all in the top 10,” Fernández said. Zaballa is not a pure climber, but he’s very tough and in very good form right now.”
Fernández said a strong showing at the ProTour debut was also important to the team, but added there still might be some surprises in the final two days.
“We wanted to demonstrate, just as we did last year, we are one of the best teams in the peloton,” he said. “Here at Paris-Nice, along with CSC, we are the strongest team in the race. If Julich hadn’t gotten away in the break on Thursday, we would be in the jersey right now.
“It will be difficult to make up time, because Mont Faron was the last time to be able to clearly mark differences between the favorites. We will do as we always do, attack and try to win.”
Horner’s MSR start in doubt
With Chris Horner languishing near the bottom of the standings in Tirreno-Adriatico, his place at next weekend’s Milan-San Remo classic is in danger, team officials said.
“He’s come into the season very behind and he’s not good right now,” Saunier Duval team manager Matxin Fernández. “I need to talk to him to see what what’s happening, but the way it’s going now, he’s not going to be ready to race Milan-San Remo.”
Horner is currently 143rd at 14:29 back after three stages, and it’s not clear if he’s suffering from some sort of health problem or building his fitness for goals later in the season.
Fernández said that if Horner sits out Milan-San Remo, he would race at Criterium International on March 26-27 and the Rund um Köln on March 28 ahead of the Tour of Georgia in April.
“We will take a very competitive team,” Fernández said about the team’s Georgia plans. “We will have Chris for the GC and Angel Edo for the sprints.
Merckx, Van Summeren victim of helmet ruling
Axel Merckx and Davitamon-Lotto teammate Johan Van Summeren were kicked out of Paris-Nice following Friday’s climbing stage up Mont Faron after the pair took off their helmets on the final climb.
According to new ProTour rules, riders will not be allowed to remove helmets on summit finishes longer than 5km. When the UCI instituted the mandatory helmet rule following the tragic death of Andrei Kivilev in the 2003 Paris-Nice, riders were still allowed to ride without helmet on longer summit finishes.
That’s changed under the ProTour, but many riders evidently were confused about the ruling. Riders in other recent races, including the Tour of Langkawi, were still allowed to take off helmets, but those weren’t ProTour events.
“I didn’t realize the rules had changed,” said Merckx. “When I got to the bottom of the climb, the bus driver was there and I handed him the helmet. The horrible thing is that I always wear my helmet, even when I am training.”
Boogerd passes on MSR, Flanders
Rabobank star Michael Boogerd will skip Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders to focus on the Ardennes classics that better suit his style.
“Milan-San Remo is very dangerous, one bad crash and your whole season is over,” Boogerd told Dutch journalists. “I will concentrate completely on Liège, Amstel Gold and Flèche. Last year I was close and it’s just a matter of getting it right.”