After a chaotic and unpredictable opening to Paris-Nice, a sense of normality resumed on stage 3, with Sam Bennett taking the win from a full bunch sprint. However, Wednesday's stage 4 individual time trial to the summit of Mont Brouilly will see the emphasis shift back to the overall contenders.
Although he equipped himself admirably in last month's Volta ao Algarve TT with a respectable top-10, Arnaud Demare will undoubtedly lose his maillot jaune. Yet, behind the Frenchman sit a number of contenders able – and certainly willing – to take up the mantle of race leader.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), who finished second to Demare on the opening stage of the race, is just six seconds off yellow, while Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Fixall) is at 19 seconds. Sergio Henao (Team Sky) has come through two difficult days in the cross winds better than many would have expected and is 7th at 23 seconds, with another Quick-Step climber, Dan Martin, on the same time.
Of the better time triallists, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) is at 1:01, while Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) sits 1:18 down after losing time on stage 1. Simon Yates, Davide Formolo, Warren Barguil, and Ion Izagirre will all be hoping to kick-start their GC ambitions on the slightly more favourable terrain.
One of Contador's main concerns coming into the stage appears to be logistics. He and his Trek-Segafredo team spent Tuesday night over an hour away from the official start of stage 4, meaning that he will see the course for the first time on Wednesday morning, although the team has scouted it and given the Spaniard as much information as possible.
"I think there will be big differences," Contador said of the time trial as he warmed down after stage 3.
"Let's see how we have recovered, because it is one important day and there we will have to give the maximum, and then see where we finish. On paper it is a flat course at first with the last 3km uphill, but until tomorrow morning I am not going to see it. In addition, it will be difficult to see it, because the hotel is over 100 km away, but at least I'll see it once. I think it's good for me, thanks to that last part uphill."
Contador's only other time trial outing this year netted him third on a stage at Ruta del Sol, but the parcours in Paris-Nice is very different. The Mount Brouilly test is similar to the short prologue Contador won in Les Gets at last year's Criterium du Dauphine – his last victory in fact – but with an added section of undulating roads tagged onto the front. Most riders are expected to ride traditional time trial set-ups, especially with the climb starting gradually before rising up towards the end.
One rider who is desperate to leave everything out on the road is Zakarin. The Russian has gone about his business in Paris-Nice with little fuss and, although he missed the first split on stage 1, he was in the small counter attack that distanced Contador in the final kilometres. Those seconds could well turn out to be vital – especially as the two rivals he marked that day in Richie Porte and Romain Bardet are either out of contention or out of the race entirely.
"It is hard to say something about tomorrow's time trial before I see the course but I look forward to having a look at it tomorrow," Zakarin said at the end of stage 3.
"I am motivated and I feel really good. Tonight I will have dinner and relax and then tomorrow I will go for it. I came to Paris-Nice with high motivation and expectations. That's why I was, up to now, concentrated and focused in all three stages. I didn't want to be surprised by echelons. Normally I don't like these weather conditions but when you have a goal, you are always able to do something more.
"On stage 1, I already took some time to other GC contenders. Honestly, it was not my plan to do that. It was just the conditions of the race moment that brought me in that situation. The time trial is the first important day, but there are many more to come later in the week."
Quick-Step's duo of Alaphilippe and Dan Martin are certainly well placed on GC but both riders will need to be at their best – especially over the opening section of the course. Alaphilippe can certainly put in a respectable ride and finished inside the top thirty on the uphill time trial at the Tour de France last year, while Martin is keen to put a damaging time trial from the Volta ao Algarve behind him.
Joe Dombrowski and Pierre Rolland both start early and should provide the first benchmarks but Nicolas Edet – another early starter – is no slouch too. Richie Porte (BMC) will be looking to bounce back and win the stage, and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) will be determined to lay down an important marker ahead of the Giro d'Italia.
According to Gallopin, who actually lost time to Demare in the Algarve TT, the complexion of overall standings will take another twist today and provide a clearer indication of who is in the frame to win this year's Paris-Nice.
"My focus for this week is the GC. Porte is out, Bardet is gone, and Contador is at one minute but still not finished. The time trial is important for the GC guys because we'll see a clearer classification. Zakarin is up there, and Contador has the time trial and then the hard last few days to rely on. Henao is also there."
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