Primož Roglič may be a Paris-Nice debutant, but he knows from painful experience that stage races in France are never over before the final weekend. Even so, the Slovenian has put himself in prime position to wear the yellow jersey on the Promenade des Anglais on Sunday thanks to an assured display in the stage 3 time trial around Gien.
Paris-Nice is Roglič’s first race of 2021, and this was his first time trial since Jumbo-Visma switched to Cervélo bikes, but one wouldn’t have guessed from the way he navigated the succession of twists and turns that punctuated the 14.4km course. He had to settle for third on the stage, six seconds down on winner Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo), but he was, as anticipated, the best-placed of the general classification contenders.
Three stages in, Roglič leads defending champion Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) by 22 seconds, and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) by 44 seconds, while climbers such as Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Jai Hindley (Team DSM) are already over 50 seconds adrift.
Such gaps are by no means definitive, of course, because there is so much distance still to run and because nothing is ever certain at Paris-Nice – witness Alberto Contador’s experiences, good and bad, on the hills behind Nice over the years. Roglič’s display in Gien was, however, the latest demonstration of the remarkable consistency he has shown since he started amassing stage race wins as a second-year pro in 2017.
Not even the harrowing experience of last year’s Tour de France finale could knock him off his stride. He simply righted his footwork and got going again, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Vuelta a España in the following weeks, and it was no surprise to see him hit the ground running in 2021. The beat goes on.
“It’s not really such a typical time trial but it suited me. I like it like that, it went well,” Roglič said.
Wednesday’s category 1 summit finish at Chiroubles on stage 4 ought to suit Roglič too, as should the haul to La Colmiane on the penultimate day. He has a most reliable foil in the shape of his Jumbo-Visma teammate Steven Kruijswijk (now 11th overall at 20 seconds), who was among the strongest performers in the Gien time trial.
The road to victory runs through Roglič and Kruijswijk. On the evidence of 2020, men like Schachmann, Vlasov and Geoghegan Hart will perhaps need to bypass the set-piece summit finishes and bring the race to Jumbo-Visma elsewhere. Fortunately for them, Paris-Nice always allows ample room for invention.
Ineos, Bora-Hansgrohe and DSM lead long list of challengers
Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) have a remarkable 60 per cent success rate at Paris-Nice over the course of their existence, winning the race through Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao and Egan Bernal. Porte’s abandon on stage 1 left Geoghegan Hart (38th overall at 44 seconds) with the burden of team leadership, though Laurens De Plus (30th at 30 seconds) offers himself as another option or, at the very least, as a useful foil.
At last year’s Giro, Geoghegan Hart and Ineos Grenadiers were compelled to ride aggressively to recoup his early losses, and his eventual overall victory led manager Dave Brailsford to suggest that this more expansive template would be their signature style in 2021. They now have little choice but to race in such a way here, and Geoghegan Hart will be able to count on support from men like De Plus, Rohan Dennis and Dylan van Baarle in that offensive.
Ineos shouldn’t be short of allies of circumstance. Defending champion Max Schachmann’s (13th overall at 22 seconds) first instinct is to attack and he knows, too, that he cannot hope to overwhelm Roglič on the summit finishes. This may be the German’s first race of the season, but a very solid display in Gien hints at his early form.
As a collective, few teams look more committed to attacking racing than DSM, and though Tiesj Benoot (41st overall at 37 seconds) and Hindley (65th at 1:02) are further back than they might have anticipated at this point, Søren Kragh Andersen impressed in Gien and lies just 10 seconds off the pace in 6th. Last year, Paris-Nice served almost as a dress rehearsal for their all-action Tour and similar creativity can be expected here.
Although Wednesday’s summit finish at Chiroubles may suit Roglič, the preceding ramble through the Beaujolais hills, which features six category 2 climbs, seems tailor made for the kind of aggression that Team DSM (then Sunweb) - and indeed Bora-Hansgrohe - unleased at the 2020 Tour. Friday’s rolling leg to Biot offers a further opportunity to disrupt Jumbo-Visma, not to mention the short and explosive finale in Nice on Sunday.
In the meantime, 22-year-old Bissegger wears yellow thanks to his impressive display in Tuesday’s time trial. The Swiss rider is unlikely to emulate 1981 champion Stephen Roche in becoming the second neo-professional to win the Race to the Sun, but that’s not to say that other young professionals won’t still be in the mix as Nice draws nearer.
His EF Education-Nippo teammate Neilson Powless (27th at 32 seconds) limited his losses well on Tuesday, and Astana's Aleksandr Vlasov (15th at 22 seconds) lingers with intent. Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates), meanwhile was a fine fourth in Gien, which leaves him only nine seconds off yellow and just three behind Roglič. As well as being a strong rouleur and an accomplished climber, the American isn’t afraid of riding assertively elsewhere, as demonstrated by his combative display on the miniature epic to Tortoreto Lido on last year’s Giro.
Roglič, of course, only burnished his status as favourite in Tuesday's time trial, but Paris-Nice and its many developing storylines are still a long way from resolution.
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