The opening stage of Paris-Nice saw the peloton split by crashes. Overall contenders have to stay vigilant to prevent losing time
There was a bit of a reaction to the decision by Paris-Nice organisers Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) to plot a course from capital to Cote d’Azur without incorporating a single kilometre of time trialling. The move was widely interpreted as an anti-Sky strategy, although it should be noted that in the course of winning the last two editions, both Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte were already in the yellow jersey for the final-day time trial up the Col d’Eze.
The controversy has followed the race to its start in unseasonally sunny Mantes La Jolie, with ASO boss Christian Prudhomme impatiently fielding questions on the subject and defending the decision as pro-tactics, rather than anti-time triallist. “We’ve designed a race in which unpredictability will last until the finish in Nice,” he said at the start of stage one, which culminated in a sprint win for Nacer Bouhanni.
Without a time trial, or significant summit finish, the race is going to be wide open, and the best strategy to win the yellow jersey will be, first, not to lose it. Some bike races are actively won. In others, it can be enough merely not to lose.
Paris-Nice sometimes resembles a giant elimination race, a Devil-take-the-hindmost over 1,000 kilometres. Many an ambitious overall contender has found himself out of touch after the opening stages, before the hills even make an appearance, such as Cadel Evans, caught out by a badly-timed mechanical issue in stage one of the 2008 race, or almost everybody except eventual winner Bradley Wiggins in 2012, when the Brit made it into a front echelon of sprinters and flatlanders in the opening road stage, which also started in Mantes La Jolie.
2014 looks like it is going to evolve in a similar way. The lack of a time trial is a distraction from the fact that the overall winner is going to be the rider who best negotiates their way through the tricky, grippy route without getting caught out. Every day, the list of potential winners is going to shrink, as riders are distanced, dropped, and trapped by crashes.
70 riders are already out of it. As the peloton arrowed through the Yvelines countryside around Mantes, the trees and hedges still bare but blue skies and green fields hinting at spring, the peloton was split by a crash at 21 kilometres to go. Those 70 riders never caught back on, and lost over a minute, a fatal loss in a race that is likely to be decided by seconds. Among the victims: Frank and Andy Schleck (Trek), Simon Gerrans (Orica), 2012 runner-up Lieuwe Westra (Astana) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky).
The unusual thing about this Paris-Nice is that it has no real crux, apart from the steep two-kilometre climb to the finish in Fayance on Friday. There’s no mountain summit finish, no time trial, and consequently no favourite. The only conclusion so far is that it’s going to be a very difficult race to win, but a very easy one indeed to lose.