The Dutch ProTour squad Vacansoleil-DCM has much to be proud of from its performance at Paris-Nice, the first WorldTour event of 2012 on European soil. The team won three stages, the mountains and team classifications and race revelation Lieuwe Westra pushed race winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky) to the limit as he finished runner-up to the Briton, only eight seconds in arrears overall.
The 29-year-old Dutchman had already shown he was on good form with a stage victory on the mountain finish at Mende on Thursday, and Westra began Sunday's concluding uphill time trial just six seconds behind Wiggins on general classification. Westra set a scintillating pace from the start as he blitzed the first checkpoint's best time by 18 seconds, and with Wiggins following him with a time three seconds slower at the 5.3km checkpoint the Dutchman could taste overall victory.
Westra would unseat Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2R La Mondiale) from the hot seat by 31 seconds, but Wiggins proved his championship mettle by going two seconds faster to win the stage and clinch overall victory. For his efforts at Paris-Nice, Westra would finish second overall at eight seconds.
"This was my first goal of the season and I am really happy with this second place," said Westra. "Last year I set the goal to compete this year in races like Paris-Nice and I confirm that I am capable of doing so. Losing to Wiggins who is at the top of races like this for years isn't a shame.
"Our team is excellent in this race and I had great support. The team gave me the confidence this winter to aim for this race and the result is satisfying. In the upcoming weeks I wish to show my shape and help the other riders in races like Flanders."
As it did in 2011, the team opened Paris-Nice with a stage victory, this time courtesy of 2012 signee Gustav Erik Larsson who captured the stage 1 time trial and the first yellow jersey of the eight-day stage race.
Dutchman Lieuwe Westra made the decisive split on stage 2 in which 21 riders went clear during stiff crosswinds and three days later would win Vacansoleil-DCM's second stage at Paris-Nice. With his solo victory on the Mende mountain finish, Westra put his hat in the ring as an overall contender as he moved into second place overall, six seconds behind Wiggins.
Two days later Thomas De Gendt was on the attack for over 170km in stage seven with breakaway companion Rein Taraamae (Cofidis), and after their cooperation off the front came to an end De Gendt soloed the final 50km of the stage to claim Vacansoleil-DCM's third stage win. De Gendt, who won the opening stage at Paris-Nice in 2011, is building form for his primary season objective, the Giro d'Italia, and hopes his victory augers well for the Italian Grand Tour.
"I want to be in perfect shape in May which means you have to take an easy season start in January and February. The fact that I can win here in a WorldTour race with growing condition is great.
"Once we got away I knew it was for the whole day. My first plan was to aim for the time trial on Sunday but the sport directors saw chances for the stage and I didn’t save myself."
De Gendt beat runner-up Rein Taraamae by more than six minutes while the peloton arrived in Nice more than nine minutes off the pace. De Gendt's race-winning effort was instrumental in moving Vacansoleil-DCM into first place on the team classification, which they would hold through to the finish.
Frederik Veuchelen won Paris-Nice's mountains classification for Vacansoleil-DCM, the first Belgian to do so since Eddy Merckx.
"It is an honor to succeed Eddy Merckx forty years after his win," said Veuchelen. "I had a good winter and the condition is great. Most of the seasons I perform from February to October and it will be interesting to see if I can keep this level."
Vacansoleil-DCM directeur sportif Jean-Paul van Poppel was clearly pleased with the team's performance.
"We set the goal for this year to improve the quality of the victories and so we did this week. Furthermore we planned to be in great shape from this week. We showed that here and in Tirreno-Adriatico where Johnny Hoogerland and Wout Poels ride with the best. We invested in the core of the team and it gives a good feeling when they get results."