Primož Roglič has had some pretty big disappointments when it comes to WorldTour stage races in France: in 2020, he was riding the Tour de France of his life until compatriot Tadej Pogačar crushed his chances on the Planche des Belles Filles. Last season, he was almost certain to win Paris-Nice until a final-stage crash left him chasing helplessly, torn to shreds and watching Max Schachmann disappear up the road with what would have been his victory.
This week, Jumbo-Visma appear intent on making sure Roglič will be on that top step of the podium in Nice and who is left to challenge them?
The Dutch outfit put on a Mapei-like masterclass in sweeping the opening stage podium, with Christophe Laporte burying himself to pull Roglič and Wout van Aert away. In Wednesday's time trial, Van Aert hardly needed that buffer. His stunning performance saw him move into the leader's jersey and win the stage by two seconds on Roglič with new teammate and former time trial world champion Rohan Dennis in third.
Although the time trial was just 13.4 kilometres, it was enough to put a big dent in the overall hopes of riders like Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), who lost more than a minute. Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) gave up 1:15 to Roglič and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) lost 1:17.
Other GC hopefuls like Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) had already lost enough time to be out of contention between the forcing of QuickStep-AlphaVinyl in the crosswinds on Tuesday and the blistering pace of Wednesday's lumpy finale.
Still in contention is Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), who put in a great effort to finish fifth, losing just 11 seconds. TotalEnergies' Pierre Latour also had a good day at 19 seconds down on Van Aert. Yates is 39 seconds down on Roglič in the standings thanks to Jumbo-Visma's opening day romp, while Latour is at 41 seconds.
Yates' twin brother Adam (Ineos Grenadiers) gave up 43 seconds and has a bit more ground to make up at 1:21 behind on GC, while Quintana has nearly two minutes to make up on Roglič.
In the coming four stages, Van Aert will most likely give up that yellow jersey to Roglič as the mountains become higher and more frequent. With the chance of bad weather shortening Saturday's queen stage, Thursday's stage from Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert to Saint-Sauveur-de-Montagut becomes much more important
The 188.8km stage 5 has five classified climbs, three of which are category 1. The Croix de Chaubouret, at 10km and 6.7 per cent average, comes too early in the stage to make a big difference, while the Côte de Saint-Romain-de-Lerps in the second half is steeper (6.5km at 7.3 per cent) but perhaps too early for a launching pad with 75km to go.
It will undoubtedly be on the Col de la Mûre where the gloves will come off. At average gradients of 8.3 per cent, this category 1 kicks up stiffly and hardly relents for 7.6km, and the downhill run-in is interrupted by an uncategorized climb and bonus sprint before the flat finish. It could well be the only opportunity to make up time on the Jumbo-Visma leaders.
Forecasts for Saturday call for snow falling at altitudes 400 metres below the summit of the Col de Turini and although the ASO have not announced any changes to the route, a last-minute shortening of the stage will deprive the GC contenders a chance to challenge Jumbo-Visma.
If the stage goes off, it could be similar to the 2019 Paris-Nice, where Egan Bernal secured his first European victory at the 2019 Paris-Nice.
That year, a 38-rider breakaway dominated the stage to the Col de Turini but at 14.9km long and an average of 7.3 per cent the finish is one for the pure climbers. Behind the escapees, Quintana battled with Bernal on the climb and could not get away. In the subsequent stage over the Col d'Eze, Quintana chipped four seconds off Bernal, but still finished second at 39 seconds - almost exactly what he lost in the time trial.
The moral of the story is, the position of natural climbers after the time trial is key to their chances in Paris-Nice. With Roglič already looking unshakeable when the road tilts upward, it would take another stroke of bad luck or an exceptional day by Yates or Latour to unseat him.
The odd chance that a team like Bora-Hansgrohe could break Jumbo-Visma's stranglehold on the race and put their leader Aleksandr Vlasov into yellow looks highly unlikely given the team has already swept two stage podiums. They're strong, organised and motivated to deliver Roglič (or maybe even Van Aert) to victory.
The chance of bad weather and the possibility the Col de Turini stage could be shortened would only make it harder for anyone to beat Roglić.
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.