What's Cool In Road Cycling

Roadside PEZ: Paris-Nice Stage 1

Roadside PEZ Paris-Nice Stage 1: Our man in France, Daniel Thévenon, has hit the kerb for his first ‘PEZ Roadside’ from Bois d’Arcy for stage 1 of Paris-Nice. The stage was full of action and Daniel was there to take in the Parisian ‘ambience’ of the 2017 Race to the Sun.

It may be known as ‘the Race to the Sun’, but Paris-Nice began this week-end under torrential rain. What had started out on Saturday as a typical Parisian drizzle over the small suburban town of Bois d’Arcy evolved on Sunday into a full-blown deluge, punctuated with occasional lulls. Swirling winds ripped umbrellas from the hands of spectators and left many athletes yearning for Nice and France’s warm south as they peered through the wet windows of their buses. The rain would eventually cease, but the terrible winds and bitter cold would exert a huge influence on the first stage.

The day before the race began, many tell-tale signs of the race’s presence were visible in the area. The usual signposts, dreaded by local motorists, indicating road closures for the purposes of the frantic struggle for the maillot jaune had sprouted like mushrooms. A few vehicles more colorful than others mingled with the Francilien traffic: the retro black and blue of a Sky team car, the blood red of a Katusha bus; the startling cyan of an Astana truck.

Even some of the sport’s retired patrons looked desperate to get in on the action. Once a sponsor…

By Sunday, everything is in place on Bois d’Arcy’s Avenue Paul Vaillant Couturier. At the start, the Voiture Balai looks in fine shape, ready to hoover up early strugglers in the rain of the Yvelines.

The shining turquoise steeds of the Delko Marseille Provence KTM stable look all in order. The bikes of Team Sunweb, however, clatter violently to the ground as a gush of wind sweeps through the avenue, prompting several passers-by to instantly raise their hands in innocence.

The famous Orica kangaroo mascot is well-travelled and has seen better weather than this.

Bryan Coquard’s magic red bike stands ready for action. ‘The Coquerel’, one of France’s finest sprinters, is among the favorites to win in Bois d’Arcy.

On the starting podium, Gatis Smukulis bides his time. The champion of Latvia will feature in the day’s break-away.

All riders may be created equal but for the photographers of Paris-Nice some are evidently more equal than others. The likes of Coquard, Romain Bardet, and André Greipel attract the lion’s share of attention—or the gorilla’s share, as the case may be.

The talk here in Bois d’Arcy is of a duel between Australia’s Richie Porte and Spain’s Alberto Contador. Yet ‘the Tasmanian Devil’ has not taken part in a competition since January’s Tour Down Under, and ‘El Pistolero’ is looking beyond Paris-Nice, to Düsseldorf and the Tour de France. The two favorites briefly cross paths en route to the starting podium and salute one another cordially.

Geoffrey Soupe explains that his team leader Nacer Bouhanni is hoping to claim a stage victory and the yellow jersey today. Cofidis’s punchy sprinter, who is still without a victory this season, looks confident behind his gold-rimmed shades, but the day will not go his way. Caught behind in the echelons, ‘the Arrow from Epinal’ will finish far behind and endure a Waterloo reminiscent of the misery he suffered at the last World Championships in Qatar.

AG2R La Mondiale’s young prodigy Pierre Latour waits stoically for his name to be called. The rider from Romans-sur-Isère hopes to help Bardet triumph in Nice.

Steven Kruijswijk, who fronts the Lotto NL-Jumbo formation, tells journalists that the course of this year’s race is extremely demanding and that he does not see the race being decided on one key climb, but rather through a series of grueling tests during the week. Subsequent events would prove ‘the Eagle of Eindhoven’ dead right.

On the Rue Henri Barbusse, at the entrance of Bois d’Arcy, a soigneur for the UAE Abu Dhabi team awaits the passage of the riders with a dozen bidons in his arms ready for distribution. They are filled with orange juice, he says. This is the midpoint in the race, at the end of the first of two laps looping around the small town. There are 78 kilometers remaining.

First to appear is a little break-away group of four, comprising Gatis Smukulis (Delko Marseille Provence KTM), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Kristijan Koren (Cannondale-Drapac) and Romain Hardy (Fortuneo Vital Concept). According to the timekeeper waving his board from the pilion of a yellow motorbike, the quartet hold a lead of 2 minutes and 10 seconds. It will not be enough: they will be caught with 64 kilometers remaining.

Spectators expect a grouped peloton to arrive next, but due to the wind the rest of the field has in fact been sundered into several fragments and each of these groups zips past in succession. The first is composed of no more than twenty riders, including FDJ’s Arnaud Démare, ‘the Bull from Beauvais’, Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel, ‘the Gorilla of Rostock’, and Quick Step’s Marcel ‘the Kaiser’ Kittel. Some of the French pretenders to the yellow jersey are also here: Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, the winner of the Tour of California, Sunweb’s Warren Barguil and Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin. Sky’s Colombian leader Sergio Henao also made it into this elite group, as did Bahrain Merida’s Spanish ace Jon Izaguirre, winner of a mountain stage at last year’s Tour de France. These men are the day’s winners and will take place in the higher reaches of the General Classification.

Roughly a minute later, a group of the disillusioned barrels past, made of up of twenty-nine units. Anguish is on their faces. They are ploughing away frantically, desperate to catch up. Both of the race favorites, Richie Porte and Alberto Contador, are trapped here, as is French hopeful Romain Bardet. The gap is not yet unbridgeable but the situation looks dire.

But they were, in many ways, the lucky ones. Behind them are scenes of devastation, as athletes trickle past alone or in small grapes, any chance of winning the day’s stage or featuring in the General Classification lost for good.

In the permanence, situated within Bois d’Arcy’s Salle des Fêtes, members of the press watch the action on television screens and prepare their dispatches for tomorrow’s papers. As Ned Boulting—the British journalist and celebrated author of How I won the Yellow Jumper—once remarked, the Permanence is not in the least permanent, since tomorrow it will be gone, transferred to Amilly. Today, the coverage proved ephemeral too, as an antenna malfunction soon deprived viewers of images of the race.

At the finish, Katusha-Alpecin’s star sprinter Alexander Kristoff marches off to the anti-doping control. The bulky Norwegian did not win today but he looks in fine form.

The bouquet for Stage 1 of Paris-Nice went, like last year, to FDJ’s Arnaud Démare. The illustrious Frenchman has previously used La Course au Soleil as a launching pad to win Milan-San Remo. Gamblers will not be betting against this happening again.

Just as Démare was donning the race leader’s yellow jersey, a large peloton of late finishers crossed the line and found itself enviously contemplating the victor. Among them, Démare’s old rival Nacer Bouhanni.

The brilliant Julian Alaphilippe, who attacked in the finale, could not compete with Démare’s muscle power on the home straight, but his second place enabled him to grab hold of the white jersey for best young rider. The Quick Step rider is being tipped for glory when the race reaches the Côte d’Azur. But how far away that seems right now…

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