Although like last year’s race, this 79th edition of Paris-Nice was affected by a rapid spread of the coronavirus, the organisers did at least manage to negotiate a path to complete a full eight stages, albeit with the final two were shortened.
As always, “the race to the sun” provided plenty of dramatic action, including Primoz Roglic's latest show of force that netted him three stage wins before he was ultimately undermined by two crashes on the final stage. That opened the door to 2020 champion Max Schachmann, who became the first rider to defend the title since Alexandre Vinokourov in 2003.
Primoz Roglic’s French stage race hoodoo continues
This was the third consecutive occasion that Primoz Roglic has reached the final key stage of a major French stage race in the lead but failed to finish in the yellow jersey. Last summer, he pulled out of the Critérium du Dauphiné prior to the final stage after a heavy crash the previous day. A month later, he came up short at the Tour de France when young Slovenian compatriot Tadej Pogaçar proved the stronger in the time trial on the penultimate day. At Paris-Nice, his three stage wins highlighted his superiority over his GC rivals, but, as at the Dauphiné, a bad crash scuppered his chances of hanging on to victory.
While there were some bone-headed claims on social media that Roglic’s loss of the title was some kind of karma after the Jumbo-Visma leader had swept past lone breakaway Gino Mäder just 25 metres from the finish on the Colmiane the day before, his final-day crash actually underlined how right he had been in chasing down the Swiss rider to grab the bonus seconds for the win and, in doing so, increase his advantage on his GC rivals. Roglic has learned the hard way that having as much insurance as possible is vital if you want to win titles.
On the upside, his absolute dominance of the race up to the final day augurs well for the more significant challenges to come. Teammate George Bennett declared during the race that he had never seen Roglic looking so strong, having spent several days training with his leader in Tenerife just beforehand. Allied to that form, Roglic was also prepared to take more risks with his attacks. All in all, he looked an even better racer than he was last year.
Paris-Nice’s final day rarely disappoints
The elements may have been benign in the opening few days, robbing fans of the chance to see the Paris-Nice favourites battling to hold on to their GC hopes in wild squalls and crosswinds, but, as has usually been the case in recent years, the last stage served up a treat of thrilling unpredictability.
Primoz Roglic had started it looking unassailable, as the winner of three stages and with the race’s strongest team to support him. The Slovenian, though, had reminded the media after pipping Gino Mäder to triumph in the penultimate stage on the Colmiane that he hadn’t got the race won yet. Sadly for Roglic, his words proved prophetic.
The two crashes the Jumbo-Visma leader suffered on the shortened stage based on the village of Levens were the trigger for his downfall. The first took place after 20 of the 92km, but Roglic recovered from it quickly to retake his place in the peloton. His second crash, with fewer than 30km to the finish, was more serious, leaving him with a bloodied buttock and requiring a bike change.
As Roglic set about trying to bridge back up to the peloton, with teammates Steven Kruiswijk, George Bennett and Sam Oomen briefly offering support, Astana Premier Tech and Bora-Hansgrohe were gathering their more substantial forces on the front of it. For once, Jumbo were substantially outgunned. Although Roglic rode with huge courage and determination to defend his jersey, the race for yellow was now between defending champion Max Schachmann and Astana duo Aleksandr Vlasov and Ion Izagirre.
Racing up the weaving gorge to the finish in Levens, the Astana pair managed to isolate Schachmann, but never looked like finishing him off as, at the same time, a furious battle for the stage win raged around this trio of favourites. In the end, the spoils went to Schachmann, but it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Roglic, denied at the very last.
Sam Bennett is currently the peloton’s best sprinter
Winner of two stages on his 2021 debut at the UAE Tour, where Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria and Pascal Ackermann were among those in his wake, Sam Bennett added another WorldTour two stage wins to his tally from the three opportunities he had at Paris-Nice, where Mads Pedersen, Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare were among his latest victims.
Bennett did miss out in a messy sprint on stage two at Amilly in which Team DSM’s Cees Bol placed himself firmly among the sprinting elite with a fine win, but the Irishman was well ahead of the rest at Saint-Cyr-L’École on day one and again at Bollène on day five. Speaking right after that first success, Bennett’s lead-out man Michael Mørkøv suggested that the Deceuninck-QuickStep sprinter has stepped up another level this season, buoyed by the confidence that came with two Tour de France stage victories and the green jersey in 2020.
Bennett is currently the Robert Lewandowski of the peloton. Like the very on-form Bayern Munich striker, you don’t expect the Irishman to miss out when he senses he’s got an opportunity. Will he get one at Milan-San Remo next weekend? Probably not given all the puncheurs queuing up to attack on the Cipressa and Poggio. But if the sprinters are in contact coming into San Remo, Bennett is currently the pick of them.
Lucas Hamilton looks a good fit as Adam Yates’s replacement
BikeExchange DS Matt White stated at the end of last season that Lucas Hamilton was shaping up as a ready-made replacement for the departing Adam Yates as one of the Australian team’s GC leaders, and fourth place in “the race to the sun” confirmed the 25-year-old Australian’s potential.
Second in the 2017 U23 Giro to Pavel Sivakov and fourth in the Tour de l’Avenir behind Egan Bernal later that season, Hamilton has risen more steadily than the Ineos pair, often working for the Yates twins in the biggest stage races. Winner of the Settimana Coppi e Bartali in 2019, Hamilton was given the chance to lead what was then Mitchelton-Scott attack at the 2020 Giro d’Italia and was hovering just outside the top 10 – and two places ahead of eventual winner Tao Geoghegan Hart – when the team pulled out of the race after four positive tests for COVID-19 on the first rest day.
This was Hamilton’s first stage race since that disappointment and he was very much part of the pack chasing on Primoz Roglic’s heels. He’ll face another strong test of his GC credentials at the Volta a Catalunya the week after next, all the time edging closer to his Tour de France debut.
Desire to race trumps unwritten rules
The final weekend produced two big talking points. On Saturday’s Colmiane stage, Bahrain Victorious’s Gino Mäder was on the verge of providing his team with their first big win of the season when Primoz Roglic burned past the Swiss inside the final 25 metres of the line to claim his third success of the week. Was the Jumbo-Visma leader being too greedy? Should he have sacrificed his own desire for victory in order to allow lone breakaway Mäder what would have been the biggest success of his young career?
On Sunday, Roglic was the unfortunate victim of circumstances. A crash on the descent from the Côte de Duranus left the yellow jersey and race winner-in-waiting injured and isolated. For a few moments, his overall rivals seemed to mull the possibility of easing off in order to allow the Paris-Nice leader the chance to opportunity to rejoin them after his fall. Then the order was given to Astana and Bora to ride flat out on the front of the group to ensure that Roglic wouldn’t be able to regain contact.
In both cases, the desire to race and to win trumped the sport’s unwritten rules, which would demand a sense of fair play that might seem justified but can pervert the whole notion of a race being precisely that.
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