Youth is Served at Paris-Nice
Paris-Nice was a race full of coming out parties. The youth movement was on full display on the undulating course, where every stage winner was aged 25 or younger. Young but already established sprinters Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb further padded their resumes at the top level, both picking up victories (and Degenkolb’s multiple strong showings on the way to the points jersey suggest a high level of form heading into Milano-Sanremo this weekend). Moreno Hofland made good on his excellent Kuurne Bruxelles-Kuurne by taking a stage victory over both of Degenkolb and Bouhanni. He’s just 22 and an exciting addition for a Belkin team that has been lacking in sprint power recently.
Once the road went up, AG2R’s Carlos Betancur put on a show, picking up two stage wins en route to the overall victory. Betancur, just 24, showed a powerful finishing kick in back to back stages. His explosiveness was already a well-known trait, but before this week, he had yet to pick up a WorldTour level victory. Now, he has three. With his performances in Paris-Nice, he has to be viewed as a top contender to nab a victory in the Ardennes.
Tom-Jelte Slagter won the Tour Down Under in 2013, but that is a race that has a history of producing results that aren’t repeated elsewhere on the pro calendar. Garmin’s new acquisition confirmed his talents with a very successful Paris-Nice, winning two stages, once with a late attack, and another in a reduced bunch sprint. His shot at the overall classification was ruined by an untimely late mechanical, but he showed he could contend for GC in this kind of race before that misfortune. Slagter’s brand of riding is the sort that wins late summer circuit races, so watch out for him in the GPs of Ouest Plouay, Montreal, and Quebec, where he seems set to improve on a number of top 10s already on his resume. Speaking of those late summer circuit races, last year’s runner up in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, FDJ’s Arthur Vichot, outgunned more well-known sprinter/all-rounder JJ Rojas in the final stage of Paris-Nice on his way to a podium spot. Like most of the top riders in this race, the French champion will take on the Ardennes Classics in April.
For many of the aforementioned riders, Paris-Nice was a chance to make good on previous flashes of talent. Europcar’s Cyril Gautier, 6th overall at Paris-Nice, was a bit more of a surprise, having only found some success at lower levels so far. He was in the mix at nearly all the stage finishes that mattered in P-N. Stefan Denifl was mixing it up as well on his way to 7th overall for IAM Cycling.
Simon Spilak and Jakob Fuglsang (who stepped in for Astana with Nibali not at his best) both showed fine form, but this was always going to be a difficult race for them to break into podium positions: neither is well-known for his sprint, and with so many bonus seconds on the line, Top 10s are respectable results to start the season.
The number of riders derailed by sudden misfortune was staggering. Many big contenders hit untimely mechanicals or were put out of contention by crashes, or just plain got sick. Geraint Thomas looked set for a podium position before a nasty late crash. Still, he showed serious all-round talent throughout the race, climbing at a surprising level, and Sky’s trust in his ability will grow after several strong days at P-N.
Rui Costa gets the final mention. He’ll be frustrated beyond belief with 2nd places on two stages and in GC, but he’s obviously on sharp form and has plenty of big races coming up, including Pais Vasco, which looks full of stages to suit his talents.
Contador Dominant in Italy
Tirreno-Adriatico offers one takeaway that stands out above all others: Alberto Contador is back. The 31 year old Spaniard was untouchable on the two mountainous stages of T-A, and the sheer size of the gap he created on Stage 5, after already giving his best to win Stage 4, put him a level well above anyone else in the race. It’s early in the year, but he should carry this form into Catalunya, where he’ll face more of the peloton’s best. His teammate Roman Kreuziger landed yet another result suggesting that he should be considered alongside the very best GC riders in the peloton, fighting it out with the top climbers in the race behind Contador on Stages 4 and 5. There are few things that the winner of last year’s Amstel Gold Race can’t do, and he looks well-situated right now to bring those talents in full force to the spring stage races and Ardennes Classics.
Nairo Quintana was not able to hang with Contador at Tirreno-Adriatico, but he still looked quite good, finishing as runner-up. He has had comparatively few days of racing so far this season, so a 2nd place at T-A bodes well. The biggest takeaway for Quintana may have been a rapidly improving ability to take on the clock: his ITT, usually a weak part of his game, was faster than the ITTs of both Kreuziger and Contador.
Trek’s Julian Arredondo made one of the biggest entrances in T-A. The 25 year old Colombian came into T-A hot after a 2nd overall in San Luis and two stage wins, and he hung with all the best climbers in this race (minus Contador) on stages 4 and 5 to take 5th overall. He and teammate Robert Kiserlovski, 8th overall, will look to keep landing strong performances in the early season.
AG2R, having just won Paris-Nice, put together a great showing at Tirreno-Adriatico, with Jean-Christophe Peraud nabbing 4th overall and Domenico Pozzovivo 6th. It’s quite a turnaround for a squad that, not long ago, was generally towards the bottom of the WorldTour standings.
Michal Kwiatkowski’s week, characterized by an early lead and sudden fall back to Earth, was a big storyline in Tirreno-Adriatico. After giving his all and hanging with the best of the climbers in the race on the 4th stage, he simply couldn’t hang on the pace for the next day. He’ll be extremely disappointed with the missed chance at his first WorldTour victory, but he should take solace in the fact that OPQS was willing to put everything they had (including last year’s Giro runner-up Rigoberto Uran) behind his chances at winning the race. Pais Vasco looks to suit his talents, so watch out for him again there.
Halfway through the race, Richie Porte joined Chris Froome on Sky’s sicklist, an unfortunate turn of events that kept us from the opportuntity to see much of Porte’s form right now, though he looked in fine shape on the 4th stage. Robert Gesink and Chris Horner pulled out for health reasons as well. Cadel Evans also dropped out of the race, well off form. He has work to do if he wants to contend in the big races of the spring.
For various reasons, neither stage 2 nor stage 6 offered the expected showdown between the sport’s top three sprinters, Greipel, Kittel, and Cavendish. Cav won Stage 6 in commanding fashion, with a leadout so strong that his teammate Alessandro Petacchi took 2nd on the day, but Kittel and Greipel were not positioned to contest him there. Meanwhile, Matteo Pelucchi, with a beautiful kick and an uncanny sense of timing, jumped at just the right moment to take Stage 2 for IAM Cycling. Peter Sagan won the 3rd stage handily and took the Points Classification, lest there was any question about his form in the early season. He looks sharp for the upcoming classics.
Adriano Malori finally nabbed his big win. He took the final ITT handily, and he did it against the biggest three names in time trialing and a slew of other big chrono riders. He was part of Movistar’s very strong TTT in this race, a group that set up Nairo Quintana for his 2nd place. I think we’ll see Malori and his fellow Movistar time trialing heavyweights on display again soon, perhaps in the Giro.
Three WorldTour stage races are already in the books in 2014, both of them full of takeaways for the early season. If Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico didn’t get you excited enough, the first Monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo, is up next. VeloHuman will, of course, be previewing the race, so check back soon, and follow the new @VeloHuman on Twitter for more analysis every day!
Photo by Mike Slone.