Crosswinds are part and parcel of the winter landscape across northern France, but never before have two relatively easy stages — at least on paper — created such havoc in a bike race.
Racing in conditions described by many as Dantesque, echelons ripped apart the peloton at the opening two days of Paris-Nice and left the GC ambitions for more than a few big-name riders in tatters.
Heavy wind, rain, and cold weather blasted riders Sunday and Monday in a thrilling, if not painful, battle against the elements, proving yet again that cycling’s outdoor stadium can be extreme and unforgiving.
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“In the first days in Paris-Nice, sometimes the differences can be larger than in the mountain stages and time trial,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador on Tuesday, one of the few favorites still in the game. “It has been a hellish day right from the first moment, and everything was cut into a thousand groups.”
Who’s out? Two-time winner Richie Porte (BMC Racing) lost more than 14 minutes Monday. Tour de France runner-up Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was disqualified Monday after being caught taking blatant “sticky bottle” pulls off a team car. Also, French star sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) abandoned Monday, BMC worker Michael Schär crashed out with fractures to his hip and collarbone that sidelined him for the upcoming classics, and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) lost more than two minutes Sunday to torpedo his GC hopes.
“No one is more disappointed than me,” Porte said Tuesday. “It was a tough day for everyone, the whole peloton. I don’t think anyone will forget that one in awhile.”
Thankfully, riders woke up Tuesday to “less rain, less wind, and maybe easier” racing conditions, according to Ag2r’s Oliver Naesen, for the 190km third stage from Chablis to Chalon-sur-Saone. The race now leaves behind the wind-blasted farm country as it pedals into hillier terrain.
So who’s left standing? While the race has proven a challenge for many, Quick-Step Floors leaves behind the melee in ideal position. Budding superstar Julian Alaphilippe is the “virtual” leader at 6 seconds behind overnight leader Arnaud Démare (FDJ), and Dan Martin is seventh at 23 seconds back.
Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), who’s finished in the top 10 at the past three editions of Paris-Nice, is fifth at 19 seconds back. Sky’s Sergio Henao is 23 seconds back. Those four will have a significant advantage going into the decisive 14.5km climbing time trial at Mont Brouilly on Thursday.
Still in the hunt but with some ground to make up are Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), 15th at 1:01 back; Warren Barguil (Sunweb), 17th at 1:17; and both Contador and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), tied at 1:18 back. Of this front group of contenders, Izagirre is the best time trialist and needs an explosive ride Thursday to get back into podium range.
This could be the breakout European stage race ride Alaphilippe has been looking for. Already a winner of the Amgen Tour of California and sixth in the Critérium du Dauphiné last year, the 24-year-old Frenchman is in the pole position. Now he just needs to survive Tuesday’s stage.