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PELOTON Recall • Wilcockson on Strade Bianche

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Pro bike racing had got stuck in a rut. Even before a race rolled out from the start, everyone knew what was going to happen. There’d be an intense opening salvo of attacks (which wouldn’t be seen on live TV) until one of the attacks stuck. That small breakaway group would stay out front until the finale. Then, either the sprinters’ teams—or the GC riders’ teams if it were uphill at the end—would reel in the break and set up their leaders for the finish. That script has been ripped apart this past week!

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada & James Startt

First, on Saturday, came Strade Bianche held over the white roads of Tuscany. Instead of the day’s early breakaway staying clear until the final kilometers, everything changed when rain, some smart racing and a crash almost 100 kilometers from the finish produced a thrilling contest that never stopped until the final pedal strokes in the historic Piazza del Campo in Siena. Then, the first two stages of Paris–Nice were going conventionally, with early breaks, until strong cross/tail winds and some old-fashioned echelon riding split the race apart in what were billed as stages for the sprinters. They proved to be everything but….

Strade Bianche got off to a normal start—if you can say anything is normal about a race that includes 60 kilometers of gravel roads, with rain and strong winds in the forecast. Well, there was an early breakaway, with six riders—including French climber Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Portuguese prospect José Gonçalves (Katusha-Alpecin)—gaining six minutes by Kilometer 50. They were almost seven minutes clear atop the long climb to Montalcino, the highest and southernmost point on the course, before heading toward the longest stretch of strade bianche (almost 12 kilometers in length) between the villages of Torrenieri and Lucignano d’Asso.

Normality then turned to chaos. Storm clouds massed over the Tuscan hills, the southerly wind whipped into the roadside cypress trees and the first drops of rain began turning the white roads to brown. Then, after climbing out of Torrenieri to an exposed plateau and just 200 meters into the long section of gravel, two-dozen riders hit the deck in a nasty pileup.

The crash happened just after four Lotto-Soudal team riders, all Belgians, had gone to the front of the peloton to begin chasing the break. Lotto team leaders Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens and support men Sean De Bie and Maxime Montfort were racing at a fierce pace when the crash snapped the line behind them. Only 11 others managed to follow them: former winners Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors); BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet and Stefan Küng; Orica-Scott’s Luke Durbridge and Christopher Juul Jensen; Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin; Cannondale-Drapac’s Sep Vanmarcke; Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven; and Bahrain-Merida’s Ondrej Cink.

Wind and rain helped split the race apart at Strade Bianche.
Wind and rain helped split the race apart at Strade Bianche.

With 98 kilometers remaining, the race was as good as over…but not the racing. Lotto’s De Bie and Montfort and BMC’s Küng did much of the work to close down the day’s main breakaway before they dropped back; classics specialists Stuyven and Vanmarcke both crashed on the gravel; while Pinot and Gonçalves were the only two from the early break to stay with the leaders when they were caught 35 kilometers from home.

The race was eventually fought out over a half-dozen short, steep climbs in the final 25 kilometers, with Kwiatkowski making his winning move on an uphill section of asphalt 2 kilometers before the last section of gravel before time trialing for 15 kilometers into Siena. The pursuing Van Avermaet, Wellens and Stybar, all of them virtually raced out, never got closer than 15 seconds, while Dumoulin, Durbridge and Juul Jensen came home next, 1:26 down, after participating fully in a battle that never let up over those final three hours. Only 89 of the 167 starters managed to finish. They all knew they’d been in a very special race–just like the old days!

While wind and rain played a limited role in Strade Bianche, those conditions—along with much colder temperatures—dictated the racing in stages 1 and 2 of Paris¬-Nice. Opening day was designed to give the riders a soft introduction to the weeklong stage race, with two laps of a 75-kilometer loop through the countryside west of Paris. Instead, it proved to be another day for the true hard men of the peloton.

RELATED: Watch all the highlights from Paris-Nice here!

Most of the 22 teams knew when they set out Sunday afternoon that the wind would be a factor; but when only a short section of the course was affected by strong crosswinds few expected significant damage. And certainly not a stage result that saw fewer than 50 riders finish within 10 minutes of the winner.

As in the previous day’s Strade Bianche, riders from Belgium’s Lotto-Soudal squad triggered the key move. It came as a complete surprise to most, because 35 kilometers into the stage the pace was low and the early four-man breakaway was already six minutes clear as the peloton cruised through the Forest of Rambouillet. But just ahead was a short descent, partly on wet cobblestones where the downhill looped around the Renaissance-era Château des Mesnuls, before the road left the shelter of the tall trees and emerged onto a flat, 2.5-kilometer straightaway where a cross/tail wind was blowing from the left.

Before descending that hill, French sprinter Arnaud Démare of FDJ was chatting with a friend, Tony Gallopin, the only Frenchman on the Lotto team, who trains on these roads. “Tony told me about the section coming up,” Démare said later. As a result, five of Démare’s FDJ teammates joined forces with Gallopin and three of his Lotto teammates, along with six riders from the Quick-Step Floors team, to blast down the exposed straightaway. Another 10 riders latched on to this front echelon to make a 26-strong group that the remainder of the field wouldn’t see until the finish, still 108 kilometers away.

All the riders in the front had a reason to work hard, especially the GC riders, Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin (Quick Step), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Gallopin, along with the sprinters Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step), André Greipel (Lotto), Bryan Coquard (Direct Énergie) and Démare. The peloton behind split in the crosswinds and the strongest riders formed a chase group of two-dozen that contained most of the other GC contenders: two-time Paris–Nice winners Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Jon Izaguirre (Movistar) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha). The rest of the field was left behind and would finish the short stage some 16 minutes back.

That was unacceptable to Cofidis directeur sportif Didier Rous, whose riders all finished in the back peloton, including his star sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. “In any old race, let alone Paris–Nice, you have to concentrate from the very first day, from the very first minute,” Rous ranted. “If you want to lift your arms at the finish, you can’t just plan to do it in the last 5 kilometers, and you can’t do it from the third or fourth echelon!”

Those in the second echelon worked as hard as those in the first one, with the two groups never more than 80 seconds apart throughout the final 100 kilometers. This was true racing. Intense. Tough. Spectacular.

Every rider had a tale to tell. Typical was that of Porte’s powerful Swiss teammate Michael Schär. “We were in the second group with Richie Porte trying to chase the front group back. After the cobbled section [on the second lap] I was behind Romain Bardet, and he went into the gutter once, which was dirt, and then a second time, and then he went down right in front of me. I went down and immediately felt my collarbone and then I tried to stand up and I couldn’t stand on my feet so I thought that something wasn’t right with my hip.” Schär was out of the race with a broken right collarbone and an iliac bone fracture. Bardet sorted out his bike and eventually got underway—and, as we now know, the commissaires considered that the help he got from his team car in chasing back to the group went beyond the usual assistance and he was disqualified.

Such was the speed and severity of the stage that the sprinters who expected to contest the stage victory were simply too fatigued by their efforts to stay with the front group. One by one, Coquard, Greipel and Kittel were dropped on the uphill ramps before the finish—where Alaphilippe and Démare attacked on the short finishing climb, with Démare taking the win.

Cold, wet and windy weather split the Paris-Nice field into multiple echelons.
Cold, wet and windy weather split the Paris-Nice field into multiple echelons.

That was an epic stage, but the wind was stronger, the temperatures lower and the day much longer on Monday. Race leader Démare summed it up this way: “ It was even harder than Sunday. The stage started fast [in wet snow] and there were 190 kilometers. That means that we’ve done a classic each day.”

What happened on stage 2 is that nine riders went clear from the gun, but within 20 minutes the peloton split, the break was caught, the chase groups split again, and by the end of the first hour (raced at 50 kilometers per hour!) a group of 22 led a second echelon by 20 seconds, a third by 35 seconds, a fourth by 50 seconds…and two more were losing ground. The battle at the front continued for the next two hours, with a 22-man lead group (with Alaphilippe, Démare, Gallopin and Henao) being chased by a 60-strong group (with Contador, Izaguirre and Martin)—which eventually closed a two-minute deficit—while Porte couldn’t stay with any of the front echelons and ended the day at the very back, a quarter-hour behind.

Describing the stage, Quick-Step’s Philippe Gilbert, who made an unsuccessful solo attack from the merged front peloton, said on his Instagram site: “On a stage like today you have to use more your elbows and arms than your legs to keep your position! Real fight. Every centimeter counts!” That sentiment was echoed by Bahrain-Merida’s Ben Swift. “Had to fight with everything,” he said. “Legs, arms and head are tired this evening.”

Perhaps the only ones happy with the day were Swift’s Italian teammate, stage winner Sonny Cobrelli, who simply had more strength left than any other sprinter at day’s end, still-race-leader Démare, and local man Gallopin—the stage started from his hometown of Rochefort-en-Yvelines. “What a day! Echelons on my roads…a childhood dream!” Gallopin said. “[Paris–Nice] is a hard race that few riders like because it comes a bit early in the season…[but] I’m going for the overall, for a podium place.”

To be a true contender, Gallopin will need to do a great time trial on Wednesday against the likes of Alaphilippe, Contador, Henao, Martin and Zakarin. All those riders are in contention for the yellow jersey, even though the first two stages took out Bardet and Porte. With a difficult time trial coming up, Tuesday’s stage 3 was understandably quieter, following a more familiar pattern, but with an unfamiliar winner in Bora-Hansgrohe’s Irish sprinter Sam Bennett.

It’s early in the season, but perhaps the epic, old-style racing we’ve seen these last few days will set a new pattern for pro cycling. It’s been retro, but it also might be setting a trend.