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March 17, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
To many riders, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico represent the start of the season’s ‘serious’ racing. For the Classics riders, these week-long stage races are a chance for a last-minute tune-up; for the GC riders, they’re an important stepping stone towards the Grand Tours in the months to come. As such, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico offer great insight into who’s riding well and who to look out for in the weeks and months to come.
Here are eight things we’ll take from the 2016 editions of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
There’s been plenty of talk in recent months about the next generation of sprinters. While the likes of Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel aren’t going anywhere soon, many fans are seemingly more interested in the development of Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge). Both are just 21, both have had noteworthy successes at pro level already, and their match-up promises to be one of the most exciting of the next decade.
Tirreno-Adriatico was the first time the pair had raced each other as professionals and it was Gaviria that took the spoils in the head-to-head match up. In the race’s four bunch sprints, Gaviria finished ahead of Ewan twice but those placing were more significant than Ewan’s. On stage 1 Gaviria was second and Ewan was ninth, and on stage 3, Gaviria won, relegating Ewan to second.
So who’s had the more successful start to their professional career? By the numbers it’s Ewan that has that honour, but he’s also had an extra year in the WorldTour. The New South Welshman already has 14 professional victories to his name, including three WorldTour scalps: two stages at the Tour Down Under and his biggest win yet — a stage of last year’s Vuelta a España. He also won the overall at the 2015 Tour de Korea off the back of four stage wins.
Gaviria’s win at Tirreno-Adriatico was his first WorldTour victory but the Colombian has a solid seven wins in his palmares already.
Both riders are still very much at the start of their career and, assuming all goes to plan, will be winning plenty more bike races. We look forward to their battles in the years to come.
To heck with the curse of the rainbow jersey. Many big names have wilted under the pressure of being world champion, but Peter Sagan has come out fighting and is banging on the door of a big success. The Team Tinkoff rider has gone close numerous times this season, giving his all to take his maiden win in the distinctive jersey.
Sagan’s form has been strong since the start of the year. Second, fourth and fourth on stages of the Tour de San Luis, he went on to place second in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, seventh in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and fourth in Strade Bianche. Tirreno-Adriatico saw him continue to hover just off the top step of the podium, taking two fourth places, two runner-up slots on stages and miss out on the overall win by just one second.
That he was beaten in Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno by Greg Van Avermaet is notable; the Belgian was himself known for his near misses, yet has put things together consistently well of late to become a regular winner (see below).
Sagan was sporting hairy legs until recently and, according to former teammate Chris Juul Jensen, had originally planned to hold off on the razor until he took that first win. He’s since changed his mind, hacking off the hair, and hopes to put an end to all the close shaves in Milan-San Remo.
The Slovakian was second in 2013 and fourth on two other occasions but, given his sparkling form and the manner of his win in last September’s World Championships road race, few would bet against him finally taking a major Monument win there or later this Spring.
Two races, two days of bad weather, and two different approaches. In the span of 48 hours, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico each faced foul weather in the mountains. The two situations were each handled very differently, with mixed reactions on each end. The consensus, however, is that Tirreno organisers RCS put rider safety ahead of their own interests, while Paris-Nice organisers ASO did the opposite.
Riders at Paris-Nice were critical of ASO on several fronts: for pushing on with the stage in the face of foul weather; for not having a back-up plan in place; and once the weather hit, for attempting to neutralise and re-start the race. In the end, the stage was cancelled on the road, without proper resources in place to transfer riders and bikes back to their hotels.
By contrast, two days later — and one day before its queen stage — Tirreno organisers RCS met with UCI officials and the riders’ union, and invoked the UCI Extreme Weather Protocol, cancelling the stage. There was no viable Plan B, they said, because of the severity of the weather. Tirreno had more to lose than Paris-Nice, as striking out the mountain stage completely flipped the script on the overall classification, while Paris-Nice still had one summit finish and two medium mountain stages after the cancelled stage 3.
Snow might provide a dramatic background for race photos but it doesn’t necessarily make for ideal (or safe) racing conditions.
Most riders at Tirreno celebrated the decision but some — GC contender Vincenzo Nibali, most notably — complained, saying the decision should have been made the day of the race, not the day before, citing clear conditions. However, that was the approach Paris-Nice took, and it turned into a debacle.
Ultimately, RCS Sport made the right call with stage cancellation. Pro cycling is dangerous enough without asking riders to hurl their bodies down snow-covered mountain roads, on 23mm tires, in sub-freezing conditions. And starting a stage, only to cancel it midway, is just a disaster waiting to happen. Once a race has begun, it’s very hard to contain, and, as Paris-Nice showed, very difficult to mitigate.
As commentator and GCN presenter Dan Lloyd wrote on Twitter, RCS shouldn’t be criticised for choosing in favour of rider safety, but rather applauded for putting the interests of riders ahead of their own.
When Richie Porte (BMC) won on Willunga Hill at this year’s Tour Down Under it seemed as if his claims of a slower build-up in 2016 had been somewhat exaggerated. But now, a couple months later, it appears Porte has indeed opted for a different strategy in 2016 and that his Willunga win was a case of him being the strongest climber there, even though he was far from peak form.
Porte was almost invisible at the Tour of Oman in mid-February, finishing 49th overall, but at Paris-Nice he showed that his form is heading back in the right direction. Coming into the race as defending champion, Porte finished third overall (behind former teammate Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)) and was impressive in the mountains. But it would seem Porte still isn’t quite as his very best.
Porte was electric on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under but has mellowed somewhat since then. And with good reason.
It will be fascinating to see how hard Porte rides at the Volta a Catalunya next week. He’s the defending champion of that race as well and it should prove to be another solid hit-out in the lead-up to the Tasmanian’s main season goal: the Tour de France.
Assuming everything does go to plan for Porte, and he does arrive at the Tour de France in career-best form, it’s still unclear how BMC will approach the race. On paper, having two riders to lead your GC ambitions — Porte and Tejay Van Garderen — is a good thing. But history has shown that dual-leader strategies prove a little more challenging in practice.
Still, there’s plenty of time between now and then, and plenty of racing at the Tour to decide the team leadership. Importantly, Porte seems to be on track for La Grand Boucle.
In a sense, he already has, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ahead of Peter Sagan on February 27. And while the cobbled classics season opener is far from a 250km Monument (it’s not even a WorldTour race), it’s still a win, on the Belgian cobbles, in the Spring — something Van Avermaet had yet to accomplish.
The rider known as “The Bridesmaid”, for his painful string of second-place finishes, seems to have hit his stride, taking wins at Omloop and Tirreno-Adriatico, where a BMC Racing win in the team time trial, and the cancellation of the mountain stage, enabled him to also take the overall victory.
Last year, Van Avermaet was the most consistent man of the major Spring Classics, yet came away without a win, finishing sixth at Omloop, second at Strade Bianche, third at the Tour of Flanders, third at Paris-Roubaix, and fifth at Amstel Gold Race. So what’s different for Van Avermaet in 2016? A few things.
For starters, Van Avermaet has a newfound confidence. In July, he finally landed that elusive Tour de France stage win. In February, he got that Belgian classic monkey of his back. (Both of those wins, as well as the Tirreno stage win and overall, came in front of Sagan, another rider seeking his first Monument victory.) Also, leadership: BMC’s other classics captain, Philippe Gilbert, has a respiratory infection, and won’t be at Milan-San Remo. Races like E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders aren’t on Gilbert’s schedule, as he instead focuses on the Ardennes Classics.
And then there’s his form, which seems to be as good, if not better, than ever. Still, it’s not likely Van Avermaet will be on the podium at San Remo. Unless he were able to break away alone, he just doesn’t sprint on par with riders like Michael Matthews, Alexander Kristoff, or Nacer Bouhanni.
Instead, it’s on the cobblestones where Van Avermaet usually shines. In particular, he is perfectly suited to the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he’s finished third (2015), second (2014), seventh (2013), and fourth (2012) in his last four appearances. Could it be here that The Bridesmaid finally sheds his nickname?
Whether it’s the end of 2016 or 2017 when Alberto Contador finally exits the peloton, the sport will be all the tamer. The final stage of Paris-Nice was a case in point: the Spaniard went into the stage 15 seconds behind overall leader Geraint Thomas (Sky), and fought every metre of the way to try to grab the final victory.
Contador sent two teammates up the road early on and then hit the jets on the Cote de Peille climb, accelerating with over 60 kilometres left on the stage. Within three kilometres he had opened up a 50 second gap over Thomas and the other contenders, and with the help of his Tinkoff teammates in the break, increased this to well over a minute.
Sky fought back and hammered on the front, eventually hauling Contador back before the Col d’Eze. Contador wasn’t finished, though, and attacked again and again on that final climb. He finally broke the elastic and crested the summit with 2015 race winner Richie Porte (BMC).
Alberto Contador was at his aggressive, impulsive best in this year’s Paris-Nice.
Contador would ultimately finish second on the stage and, with Thomas finishing just behind, second overall, by a single second. Contador was gutted to go so close and was emotional on the podium. However, just as he has done many times in his career, he showed a commendable fighting spirit and a willingness to tear up the tactic book and attack from a long way out.
The Spaniard served a suspension in the past for a Clenbuterol positive and consequently has a question mark over his past achievements. Even so, whenever he hangs up his wheels, racing will be more muted and the sport a little less gripping as a result. His impulsiveness and aggressiveness did much to make this year’s Paris-Nice the exciting race it was.
There’s been a feeling of some disappointment the past two years when one of Australia’s most exciting riders, Michael Matthews, hasn’t returned home for the summer races. But Matthews has his reasons for staying in Europe, not least the fact that he prefers to start his season later than most, rather than preparing for and then racing hard in January and February.
While Matthews has arrived at Paris-Nice the past two years with no racing in his legs — in stark contrast to most of his rivals — ‘Bling’ hasn’t just held his own; he’s been one of the most dominant forces in the race.
Michael Matthews won stage 2 of Paris-Nice after Nacer Bouhanni was relegated for interrupting Matthews’ sprint.
In the 2015 Paris-Nice Matthews won a stage and the points classification. And then at this year’s race he went even better. After a surprise victory in the prologue ITT Matthews held the overall lead until the penultimate stage, winning a stage in yellow along the way.
Matthews will go into Milan-San Remo on Saturday as one of the big-name favourites, just as he will in the Ardennes Classics in a month’s time. His decision to start his season late these past two years has been something of a gamble, but a gamble that has paid off. Who knows what else he’ll be able to achieve in 2016.
Anyone who watched the finale of Strade Bianche would find it baffling that the winner, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), would be retiring after the 2016 season. Against two of the best Classics riders in the sport — Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) — Cancellara got himself into perfect position then launched a brutal attack to win the race.
The 34-year-old backed that up with a time trial win at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing the flat, 10km course 13 seconds faster than Johan Le Bon (FDJ) and 15 seconds faster than Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep). More importantly, Cancellara was 24 seconds faster than Sagan and 31 seconds faster than Greg Van Avermaet — two fellow classics specialists who were racing for the overall win.
Cancellara heads into Milan-San Remo — a race that he’s won once and stood on the podium for another four times — as a top favourite. And he’d like nothing more than to win, again, in his final season.
“I go for a win, not just for a farewell,” Cancellara told the media at a press conference on Tuesday.
What about you? What will you take from the 2016 Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico?