Paris-Nice: Contador wins… no wait

Stage 8: Nice to Nice

You had to pay attention, but I think I counted something like eight moments that said Sergio Henao was beaten today, which is all the more incredible given that he’s now this year’s winner of Paris-Nice.

The first moment was when Alberto Contador attacked with 52km to race, setting up the day’s drama.

The second came when Contador pushed ahead, building a lead of about 45 seconds over the Colombian.

Sergio Henao, alone, and forced to ride in front

The third when the two Team Sky riders dropped off in the middle of a commercial break with 21km to go, forcing Henao to the front as he rode up the Col D’Eze. Henao, and the situation, looked pretty miserable at this point.

The fourth when Contador, along with David De La Cruz of QuickStep and Marc Soler of Movistar pulled away, increasing the gap to one minute.

Then fifth when Porte went, which convinced everyone Henao was beaten, or worse, collapsing. He certainly had me fooled. But somehow Henao followed Porte, who then made way to leave Henao to do his own work on the front.

The sixth when Porte went again at 18.4km left. Again Henao followed, getting his punishing place back at the front as reward. No chicken wing would get anyone to ease his burden at the front and take over.

Then there was this period when Ilnur Zakarin, and Ion Izagirre decided to make his life even harder for Henao, attacking and forcing Henao to follow, which he did, then forcing him back to the front. Same again when Dan Martin attacked, looking to secure his podium spot, and again when Julian Alaphilippe made a similar move. If Henao wasn’t already feeling ruined, not to mention victimized, surely he was now. That was seven.

De La Cruz heads for the line, followed by Contador

But it turned out Henao knew how to descend, doing so in such a way that defied the story being told further up the road. For Contador had broken free of De La Cruz, chasing for the full ten-second bonus, to add to the two seconds he’d picked up at the intermediate sprint. Having just climbed an actual mountain, Henao now had a proverbial one left to climb.

And so, while the Contador story was unfolding at the front, the Henao story was about to finish within two seconds of being an after thought.

De La Cruz, nudging past Contador, took the win, and four seconds that Contador was counting on. Henao, somehow, had done it, defying Contador, and everyone who thought he was done.

Including me. Eight. I lost count after eight moments he was supposed to be beaten.

Go to ProCyclingStats.com for all the results from Paris-Nice.

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Paris-Nice: Alaphilippe, Martin, and the value of teammates

Paris-Nice Stage 6: Aubagne to Fayence 

As the race reached the second ascent of the Mur de Fayence Julian Alaphilippe knew one thing – to find the wheel of Dan Martin and stay there until he’d safely

Simon Yates takes the win in Fayence

crossed the finish line. But with that job done, and the yellow jersey safe for another day, Alaphilippe found he couldn’t let him go of Martin, even after they’d reached the finish.

The superlatives of the day rightly belonged to Simon Yates, who with every win guarantees an exciting talent to cheer home for the next decade or so; but behind him was another battle, the one between Alaphilippe and himself.

With Yates up the road, Alaphilippe knew he had more than two minutes on the Bury man. And when Porte went he knew the cross winds of Stages 1 and 2 meant the Aussie’s efforts were for pride more than anything. But Sergio Henao was different, trailing on GC by little more than a minute.

Julian Alaphilippe in yellow, follows his teammate Dan Martin up the climb in Fayence

Alaphilippe, couldn’t follow Henao, but didn’t panic. Neither did Dan Martin, slotting in ahead of his teammate and pulling him up what, even on TV, looked like an unforgiving climb. Martin, who only last month was leading the Volta ao Algarve, was now demonstrating cycling’s egalitarian side, putting in the work for his teammate.

Alaphilippe knew what to do, and followed Martin all the way to the summit. Martin, in one of those moments that really sticks, swung wide as the finish line appeared, waving Alaphilippe through ahead of him while he kept watch on those chasing behind. Watching the footage you’d guess Martin assumed there wer

Dan Martin waves through his teammate Julian Alaphilippe

e still bonus seconds to be had, or maybe wasn’t sure and didn’t want to risk it. But the gesture, waving Alaphilippe through just in case, stuck.

Post race the cameras picked out Yates. A few feet away Alaphilippe had his arm around Martin. Both were smiling. Martin had done his job and Alaphilippe had too, keeping the lead for another day. Instinctively Alaphilippe then embraced Martin a second time, the thanks and gratitude all too obvious.

These moments encapsulate the best of cycling. Here we had a race leader showing his gratitude, acknowledging his frailties, and his dependence on others for his own

Alaphilippe and Martin embrace after crossing the finish line

success. It’s moments like this when you understand what makes cycling such a compelling story, as well as such a human one.

Attention will rightly be on Yates tonight, and the performance that reminds us of what we have to look forward in the future. But Alaphilippe keeps yellow tonight, thanks to his own grit, and that of an Irishman who left everything on the Mur de Fayence for a teammate.

For full results from Stage 6 of Paris-Nice, go to ProCyclingStats.com.

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Paris-Nice: Van Rensburg loses the “I’m fine” debate

Paris-Nice Stage 3 – Chablis to Chalon-sur-Saone

There was nothing of any note to report on Stage 3 of Paris-Nice. No storms, no sleet, no hypothermia. Instead a bog-standard normal day, complete with a breakaway, a chase, and a sprint finish (won by Irishman Sam Bennett). It was easy to miss all those cross winds, and all the misery.

Reinhardt Janse Van Rensburg failing the “what is your name” test on Stage 3 of Paris-Nice

Not that Reinhardt Janse Van Rensburg of Dimension Data was thinking that as he rolled out of Chablis. The South African champion might have appreciated weather he could at least recognise, or did until about 30 km to go when, missing the adversity of the days prior, he decided to crash.

All right, that last bit isn’t true. But after two days riding in horrendous conditions, it seemed unfitting that something as trivial as a touch of wheels or some other piece of bad luck (a discarded arm warmer?) would leave him laying on the road in the fetal position as riders and their team cars drove past him – exactly what you want to hear as your life flashes before your eyes.

Van Rensburg seemed in no hurry to move. Several men in jumpers came by to look at him, before moving on. Then two of them took an elbow each and tried to lift him.

This usually gives the first indication of what condition a crashed rider is in. Wincing and maybe reaching for the base of your back is one thing. Van Rensburg though wobbled.

If the next sign you’re looking for is the ability to walk unassisted, he failed this too. Instead, he was guided to the side of the road, leaning back as he was escorted there, as if being taken outside by sympathetic nightclub bouncers.

For his part Van Rensburg tried to politely excuse himself, intent on not only retrieving his bike from the middle of the road, but also getting on it and rejoining his teammates. He had a race to ride after all, and the peloton was getting away. Thanks for the kind words gentleman, but I’ll be on my way.

The doctors, and they carried bags so they must have been doctors, weren’t fooled. They prodded him a bit as he stood ready to remount his bike just as soon as there was a break in traffic. I’m not sure if “letting go of the patient and seeing if he falls over” is official medical procedure, but it was enough. Van Rensburg was in no fit state to ride on.

They appeared to ask Van Rensburg some simple questions… most likely his name, what team he rode for, what he thought he was doing laying on the road in the middle of France – checking he hadn’t lost his mind (although arguably the time to do that was when it started snowing on Stage 2).

In response Van Rensburg looked serious, as if trying to answer something philosophical. It’s all very well getting the answer to “what is your name?” but if it takes you two minutes it’s really a hollow win.

The man with the bag put two arms on the South African’s shoulders and thinking concussion, declared him out, as the Voiture Balai parked up ready to provide an unwelcome seat. Van Rensburg was dazed, confused, but not exactly beaten, heroically intent on carrying on. Those are no doubt the exact qualities you hope for in a teammate, and also in the riders it’s easy to like watching on TV.

Click here for all the results from Stage 3 of Paris-Nice.

Read more from Paris-Nice:

Stage 1: All the fun of an “orange alert” cross wind
Stage 2: It’ll all end in tears

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Paris-Nice: It’ll all end in tears

Paris-Nice – Stage 2 – Rochefort-en-Yvelines to Amilly

Rain jackets, sleet, and ice-cold conditions – this wasn’t the kind of exposure team sponsors were looking for.

Philippe Gilbert in the breakaway on Stage 2 of Paris-Nice

Picking up the race with 37.7km left to race, it became clear we were watching the convalescence portion of a stage, or maybe the grieving period, of everything that had come before, and off camera.

After “code orange” Day 1, riders were pedaling through a code red day 2. Grey sky, grey roads, grey faces, and puddles of water reflecting all of it. Crosswinds and four-degree temperatures split the peloton again. A small group of riders went one way, while Richie Porte went in the other, presumably south, to somewhere warmer.

There had been a middle group too, this one containing Alberto Contador. While Porte’s GC chances were being consigned to the deep freeze, Contador and his Trek team figured they might as well keep warm by chasing the lead group, which they did, catching it not long before live coverage began.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Behind them the peloton rode on. Luca Pibernik, of Bahrain Merida, was at the front of it, dreaming of the desert, and riding like a man who’d been informed by race radio that there was hot soup waiting at the finish line. He wasn’t leading the group so much as riding as fast as he could to get indoors while he could still see through his eyes, past the tears flowing from them. A permanent grimace had also settled on his face, unlikely to thaw until next year’s Tour of Oman.

Others took to swinging their arms around, in conditions that could have made this a primitive breaststroke, to move blood, previously busy keeping vital organs beating, back into the hands.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Philippe Gilbert, riding his tenth Paris-Nice, had by now set out on his own, and showed no signs of being bothered by the cold, possibly because his hands, wrapped in fingerless gloves, had frozen a great many kilometers ago.

He’d managed to get half a minute on the pack, but with nine kilometers to go sat up, figuring there was no point killing himself alone out front in the cold – far better to kill himself with company back with the others in the cold, who were possibly too cold to notice he’d gone anywhere in the first place.

Tears of cold during the race, tears of a different kind at the finish line. Not just from those who’d survived to Day 3 (Nacer Bouhanni, Niccolo Bonifazio and Maxime Bouet were among those who didn’t), but from Sonny Colbrelli, who defied the sprint opposition, and what was by now a strong rip tide, to cross the line first.

Tears certainly, but of joy this time.

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Paris-Nice: All the fun of an “orange alert” cross wind

Paris-Nice – Stage 1 – Bois-d’Arcy to Bois-d’Arcy

Paris-Nice coverage picked up almost where Strade Bianche left off the day before, with a rider shouting at a man on a motorbike.

Yesterday it was Michal Kwiatkowski, who had to point out, with the urgency of a man about to crash, that the moto-rider was about to cut him off as he took a crucial left-hander.

Flash forward to today and there was a BMC rider (Amaël Moinard?) making it quite clear to the two motorbikes capturing all the misery, that they should in no uncertain terms, f*** off.

English remains the official language of profanity
English remains the official language of profanity

Curiously English is the preferred language of the expletive, whether by Pole Kwiatkowski or Moinard (?), to who are presumably French moto-riders. Which might be why the point never really gets through.

Great pictures though, which allowed the rest of us to watch one of those courageous kinds of stages, blown open by an “orange alert” cross wind that divided the peloton in two. It would be a thrilling day for the Schadenfreude-cam.

The struggle was obvious. As well as sticky bottles helping along tired riders, there were sticky arm warmers, sticky rain capes, and sticky gloves. It was an ugly day that some might have preferred had played out behind closed doors.

Like Delko Marseille Provence’s Gatis Smukulis for instance.

Smukulis, the Latvian champion, had caught the first echelon, but then spent the day keeping up with it, leaving him no time or energy to remove his leg warmers. He’d got as far as rolling them down to below knee level for a brave “St Trinians” look, but no further.

Latvian champion Smukulis disappointed to drop back, but relieved to sort out his leggings.
Latvian champion Smukulis disappointed to drop back, but relieved to sort out his leggings.

Schadenfreude-cam was there to capture his eventual demise as he slipped off the group. He waved off the camera (this never works), trying to muster what dignity a man with his knees in the wind, could realistically manage.

Meanwhile others were watching their general classification hopes disappear up the road.

Alberto Contador and Richie Porte had been caught out when the peloton split, so too Simon Yates (whose brother Adam was having a better day in Italy). Then there was Romain Bardet, who had come ready to do battle, but who would leave bruised, and beaten up.

First he missed the split, and then he crashed with 40km to race. With grazed skin, cut knees and no (possibly sticky) gloves, he worked hard to regain his place the second group, and looked like he’d restored some hope after scrambling across the finish line. It was only then he heard the news that he’d been disqualified by the race jury who know a thing or two timing and when to deliver bad news.

Barred beaten and bruised at the finish, woulds inflicted mostly by the race jury
Bardet beaten and bruised at the finish, wounds largely inflicted by the race jury

Not that place in the front group was any guarantee of security, as one rider after another discovered.

Frenchman Bryan Coquard of Direct Energie was dropped with just 4.5 km to go. Then Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of Direct Energie was dropped with just 4.4km to go. It wasn’t just the Frenchmen crumbling.

Mad Jack Bauer followed, then the sprinters Marcel Kittel and André Greipel, which ultimately gifted the stage to French sprinter Arnaud De Démare, who with suitable panache confessed he’d enjoyed himself.

A tough day in the saddle, which we got to see in all its vivid detail, thanks to those f***ing motorbike cameras. Yeah, they need to get out of the way sometimes, but roll on Stage 2.

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