"I can't wait for tomorrow," were the words uttered by Bahrain-Merida's Ion Izagirre after a dramatic queen stage of Paris-Nice. He - like everybody else - is expecting an explosive and exciting battle for the title on Paris-Nice's punchy final stage.
The fight for the overall classification at Paris-Nice has been the epitome of 'every second counts' in recent years, with the last two editions settled by less than a handful of seconds. This year's race looks set to bow out in equally as dramatic style with a 110-kilometre final day that includes no fewer than six categorised ascents – all at least ranked category two or above. Despite being called the race to the sun, the wet conditions that have plagued much of the week are expected to impact the stage, adding yet another variable to the day.
To add to the drama, the first eight riders in the overall standings separated by less than a minute and the top five by under 30 seconds. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is in the driving seat after claiming victory on Saturday's queen stage to La Colmiane. The bonus seconds on the line were enough to give him an 11-second lead in the overall standings. With such a short stage in store, Yates, like Izagirre, is expecting the other riders to come out swinging right from the off.
"It's going to be difficult to defend tomorrow, it's still close, I didn't have much of a gap at the finish there so we will see how it goes. It's the last stage. The last couple of years it kicked off early and I expect the same again tomorrow. I like that stage, we'll have to see about the weather, but we'll see," Yates said following his win.
"It was a really great job by the boys today, we were always in perfect position and I never wasted any energy throughout the day which I think is what really helped me in the final there. Of course, it's my first victory on a real summit finish so I'm really happy. Obviously really tired now but we need to defend tomorrow."
Looming over Yates' shoulder are the Izagirre brothers Ion and Gorka, who are just 11 and 12 seconds behind him in the overall standings. While it was Ion that went on the attack with Yates on stage 7, both Bahrain-Merida riders have looked strong this week and will be able to take turns in trying to turn over Yates. In December, the Izagirres told Cyclingnews that they were better riders when they raced together and this stage will be the perfect chance for them to prove that point.
Standing fourth in the queue and only one more second in deficit is the irrepressible Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). The 26-year-old is not shy of a bit of rain and already has a general classification title under his belt in 2018 after winning the Vuelta a Andalucia last month. Wellens is never one to take things lying down and there is little doubt that he will take an all or bust approach to the final stage, as Alberto Contador did over the past two years.
While it is the top four that have the greatest chance of taking home the 2018 Paris-Nice title, there are several riders who could come from behind to cause an upset. BMC's Dylan Teuns finished second to Yates on Saturday and is only 27 seconds back while best young rider Marc Soler (Movistar) is 37 seconds down in sixth place and Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) only a further two seconds behind the Spaniard. While it is slim, last year's champion Sergio Henao (Team Sky) is still within a shout of retaining his title at 57 seconds down.
The final stage will not just be about the overall classification and there will be riders such as Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) and Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) – to name but a few – who will want to close the week with a bang and will be out for the final stage win.