When Alberto Contador screeched to a standstill on the Promenade des Anglais all of Paris-Nice held its breath. The seconds ticked by, the Spaniard desperately looked up at the clock, and Sergio Henao drew ever-closer to the line. For all the recent talk of discs, doctors and dropboxes, this was pure racing at its best.
Contador (Trek-Segafredo) needed to finish 23 seconds ahead of the Team Sky rider to win a gripping race but in the end he missed out by a slender two seconds. Last year, Contador lost the race by a mere four seconds but this was a far more tense affair, and had it been for series of ifs and buts, Contador would have taken the top step on the podium.
If only he had won the sprint bonus on the Col d'Eze; if only Marc Soler (Movistar) had collaborated in a late break; if only Contador could have won the stage sprint against David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) and picked up an additional four seconds in the process; if only Henao had panicked under the relentless pressure.
"On one hand I'm really happy because to do that in a final you need to be very, very strong. Everyone knew that I would attack because my team pulled hard for me. Then it's difficult to go alone when every other rider is looking to you," Contador told Cyclingnews at the finish.
Contador's attack was on the cards from the very start. He began the stage 31 seconds off Henao's yellow jersey and in third place overall. After having the measure of the Team Sky rider on stage 7, the only question was where on the map Contador would begin his assault. He plumbed for almost the exact same spot as last year, accelerating away on the Côte de Peille after the impressive Jarlinson Pantano reduced the peloton to a slender group of around 30 riders.
When Contador went, with around 50 kilometres to go, Henao and Dan Martin briefly held him but a second and third acceleration saw the former Tour de France winner snap the elastic and break free. Within a couple of hairpins he was on the back of the morning break, sweeping past a collection of double takes and dropped jaws, before moving to the front and setting his own tempo.
With no teammates to assist him, Contador was obliged to do the lion-share of the work. There were brief but appreciated cameos from two UAE riders, and Michael Matthews, as Henao quickly lost over a minute.
By the time Contador reached the foot of the Col d'Eze he had just De la Cruz and Marc Soler (Movistar) for company. Neither were willing to work initially but De la Cruz eventually pitched in with a few turns after Soler attacked over the top of the climb.
As the leaders raced into the finish, a fading Soler was caught and spat out the back, leaving Contador and De la Cruz to battle for the stage. Contador had little left for the sprint, and as he pulled to a standstill his only intention was to turn around and look up at the clock positioned above the line. Thanks to his two-second bonus on the penultimate climb and six seconds at the finish, he only needed 23 seconds to win his first Paris-Nice in a decade. In the end, all the effort wasn't enough, and Henao, who marshalled several other attacks brilliantly, came home to take the overall win by two seconds. It was the biggest win of the Colombian's career and carried on Team Sky's tradition on winning here.
As Contador warmed down on the rollers, a shake of the head and consolation pats on the back from Richard Virenque and Christian Prudhomme could do little to cover his disappointment.
"This is professional sport and I lost again by two seconds. It's another second position but I'm happy because that was a beautiful day of cycling. That's also important. I would have preferred to win, of course, but that's sport," Contador said as he stood against the railings at the finish.
"With De la Cruz it was good work but with Soler, no. He was either off the front or off the back and he didn't help. That's normal. Every rider has their own interest. I'm happy for De la Cruz because I understand that he wanted to win the stage. Also thanks to Michael Matthews who helped me on the false flat."
All the ifs and buts from a thrilling stage will be debated for days and weeks to come but in truth Contador lost Paris-Nice on the opening day when crosswinds and rain battered the peloton. Henao made the first split and Contador didn't, losing well over a minute. Yes, he was the strongest climber in the race, few would argue otherwise, but the deficit from stage 1 was too much, even for a rider of Contador's calibre.
"If I'd not lost the time in the first stage the tactics would have been different. I could have concentrated on winning the stage," he said.
Sean Kelly, who commentates at the race for Eurosport, summed up the final stage and Contador, perfectly
"When Contador is at week-long races he still has it, and he makes racing so exciting. We'll miss him when he's gone."
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