Wednesday afternoon saw Jumbo-Visma double their win tally for the season as Wout van Aert sprinted to victory in Tirreno-Adriatico minutes after Primož Roglič's solo win in Paris-Nice. But while there's much debate over the Belgian's chances of competing for the overall win in Italy, it would already be hard to find anyone willing to bet against a Roglič triumph in Nice on Sunday.
Yes, the race may only be halfway done, with a 16-kilometre summit finish and an intense, hilly closer around Nice still on the menu, but such was the ease with which Roglič ascended Chiroubles and into the yellow jersey, his 35-second GC lead now looks almost insurmountable.
Having already been 'race leader in waiting' behind EF Education-Nippo's Stefan Bissegger and Deceuninck-QuickStep's Rémi Cavagna after the stage 3 time trial, his lead over prominent rivals – such as Bora-Hansgrohe defending champion Max Schachmann and Astana-Premier Tech climber Aleksandr Vlasov, both at 16 seconds – already looked solid.
That was before he made his move 3.1 kilometres from the top of Chiroubles, chasing a second attack by Total Direct Énergie climber Pierre Latour on the seven per cent stretch of road leading to a wildly-placed intermediate sprint.
He picked a great moment to get away, with Schachmann and eventual third-placed man, Cofidis' Guillaume Martin, not on the front, while DSM's Tiesj Benoot and Vlasov didn't have and open road into which they could respond. Vlasov's teammate Ion Izagirre immediately jumped on the move, and Team BikeExchange sprinter Michael Matthews tried to nab some bonus seconds, but the Slovenian champion encountered little pushback after attacking.
As Roglič pushed on out front, quickly building a lead, the likes of Vlasov, Martin, Groupama-FDJ's David Gaudu and UAE Team Emirates' Brandon McNulty failed to organise as a chase group, until DSM and Bora-Hansgrohe got it together inside the final two kilometres.
Observations on the chasing group do nothing to take away from Roglič's ride though. At this point we all know what he is capable of, and he showed today that he has no equals at the race – the likes of Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar are at Tirreno-Adriatico, after all.
In recent years, the race has frequently witnessed late turnarounds at the top of the general classification. In 2019, Bernal took over the lead from teammate Michał Kwiatkowski on the Col de Turini. The previous year saw Marc Soler's solo raid into Nice overhaul a 37-second Simon Yates lead, while in 2015 Richie Porte overturned a 36-second Tony Gallopin lead in the closing Col d'Eze time trial.
It's hard to imagine anything like that happening on the Valdeblore La Colmiane or in Nice this weekend, and that has as much to do with Roglič's past record as his current form. While his top form hasn't always lasted through three weeks, his record in short stage races is without rival.
His run since March 2018 encompasses wins in Itzulia, Romandie, Slovenia, the UAE, Tirreno, Romandie, and Ain, along with a third at the Tour of Britain and an unfortunate DNF (from what looked like certain victory) at last year's Dauphiné. Adding this year's Paris-Nice to that staggering run looks more and more likely.
Plenty still in fight for the podium
Behind Roglič, the standings look far less settled. Schachmann valiantly battled his way up the Valdeblore La Colmiane last year as Benoot fell 18 seconds short with his attempt to get into yellow. But last year, the German had a Roglič-esque 36-second overall lead over Benoot – and over a minute on everyone else.
This time around, he'll have to defend against a host of other strong climbers who are breathing down the neck of his Sportful jersey. Twenty-two-year-old McNulty is just two seconds back, while the equally promising Vlasov lies six seconds down. Izagirre (eight seconds), Benoot (30 seconds), and BikeExchange climber Lucas Hamilton (34 seconds) are also within striking distance, while nine others are within a minute.
Astana-Premier Tech were aggressive on stage 4, sending Luis León Sánchez on the attack late, while Izagirre made the move behind Roglič, and Vlasov put in a dig later en route to fifth. The Kazakhstani team will certainly make moves on Saturday's summit finish and look to have the greatest strength in depth to ask multiple questions of the other podium challengers, and possibly even Roglič.
All-rounder Benoot could rely on the luxury of having last year's Giro d'Italia runner-up Jai Hindley putting in work for him in the finale. The Belgian showed last year he can hang with some top climbers at this race, but putting time into them is another question.
McNulty will wear the best young rider's jersey on Thursday, but lost time at the line after admitting he made a mistake positioning himself for the sprint. At the moment he looks a slightly stronger time triallist than climber (see last year's impressive Giro debut and the past two days here), so his performance will be one to watch on Saturday.
Beyond that, there are more unknowns that knowns, as is the case with Movistar's Matteo Jorgenson, another talented, young American who finds himself in sixth overall, 58 seconds down on Roglič. He only turned pro last year and looks a promising talent in both hills and mountains, even if his 190cm frame is hardly prototypical. Lying so far up the GC, the final weekend will be a venture into the unknown for the 21-year-old.
At 11 seconds further back, Lucas Hamilton is testing himself for the first time as a team leader for BikeExchange. Looking to learn as a GC rider after Adam Yates' exit to Ineos Grenadiers, he's in a solid position already, and won't have to wait long to show exactly what he can do when working for others. His countrymen, Bahrain Victorious' Jack Haig and AG2R Citroën's Ben O'Connor, lie in 13th and 16th, respectively.
Finally, after four days of racing, home riders are in a less than promising position in the GC. No Frenchman has won the race since Laurent Jalabert in 1997, and that likely won't change this year, either. Cofidis leader Martin was the best home finisher on Chiroubles, taking third behind Schachmann, but he's 15th overall, 1:36 down.
The best Frenchman on GC, Latour (10th at 1:12) finished in the next group along, 16 seconds down, along with Gaudu, Quentin Pacher (B&B Hotels p/b KTM), Aurélien Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën), and Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic). All except Pacher lie within a minute of the podium, but still, it looks like it will take some doing over the weekend. This is Paris-Nice though, and we all know you can't rule out a late turnaround.
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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