Paris-Nice snow fiasco: Fractures, frayed nerves

A day after stage 3 was canceled because of snow and cold, riders and sport directors are frustrated with how it all played out.

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MACON, France (VN) — Riders were happy to wake up to sun following Wednesday’s snowbound fiasco at Paris-Nice, but there were a lot of frayed nerves at the start line ahead of Thursday’s sprint stage.

“You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know it was going to be snowing,” Trek – Segafredo’s Fränk Schleck told VeloNews. “The decision was the right one, but no one likes to see the stage canceled. You have to respect the organization because it’s a complicated situation, but you have to wonder if they could have done something different.”

That perfectly summed up feelings in the peloton Thursday morning. No one wanted to race in dangerous and extreme conditions, but neither did riders or teams want to see the stage canceled outright.

“We were trying to come together as riders, and in the end, it was the right decision to make,” said race leader Michael Matthews of Orica – GreenEdge. “Today we can race in safe, healthy, normal conditions. The riders want to race, but yesterday, it was just too dangerous.”

Wednesday’s debacle was only the third time in 25 years that a Paris-Nice stage was canceled due to weather, but the episode seemed to reveal long-running fractures within the peloton.

Opinions ran the gamut: from frustration that the stage was even held in the first place, to exasperation over a botched attempt to neutralize and restart the stage, to the impact it will have on the final GC at Paris-Nice. No one questioned that the stage to the hilltop finale at Mount Brouilly in France’s Beaujolais country should have been canceled as it unfolded, but many wondered why there wasn’t a different resolution.

As temperatures plunged and rain turned to snow, Mother Nature made the decision for them. When the peloton hit a string of third-category climbs midway through the stage, the roadway became impassable with a mix of slush, snow, and ice. Things were so extreme that Luis Angel Maté of Cofidis said riders started to urinate on themselves to try to stay warm. Marcel Kittel of Etixx – Quick-Step posted an angry Twitter comment, and he was still steaming Thursday morning.

“To cancel the stage was the worst-case scenario for everyone,” Kittel told VeloNews. “That’s the point why we are frustrated. The whole race could have been different. We could have raced somewhere else, and it’s unfortunate that the organization didn’t have a ‘plan B.’ It was clear at the start line, when we had 3C and rain, that is was going to snow when we climbed higher. We could have raced on different roads. It was not snowing at the summit.”

Cycling’s new “extreme weather protocol,” revamped this season, is designed to give structure and direction on how to handle inclement weather and potentially dangerous racing conditions, but Wednesday’s fast-changing storm reconfirmed how tricky that can be. Officials from the riders’ group CPA met with UCI and race officials Wednesday morning, but the decision was made to start the stage. With no alternative route already in the works, they decided to take the gamble that roads would stay clear of snow.

Organizers faced a quickly changing, complex situation. Although it was raining and cold when the stage started, it was not snowing on the course or at the finish line. Temperatures plunged within an hour of the riders arriving to the climbs, and rain turned to snow. Only the upper reaches of the climbs were affected, however, and organizers initially discussed neutralizing part of the course to bring the peloton to the valley and re-start the stage to race on a final circuit and finishing climb. But at that point it was too late and too cold for the rain-soaked and freezing riders, and the stage had to be canceled.

“It shows that the [weather protocol] still needs some work, but it’s good that it’s there. It’s already a step in the right direction,” Kittel continued. “Maybe the decision could have come earlier, but in the end, it was a good decision to cancel the stage.”

Sport directors also grumbled that the loss of the steep Mount Brouilly summit will have a major impact on the final GC. “That only leaves Saturday’s summit,” one sport director of a team with a major GC candidate said with a resigned shrug. “[La Madone d’Utelle] is not that steep. It will be hard to make real differences there. The GC is ruined.”

Yet another suggested something more sinister, and hinted at what was described as a “bad feeling” between teams and ASO, the organizers of Paris-Nice, the Tour de France, and several other WorldTour races.

“The Giro’s changed the route a few times, and everyone agreed to that. Everyone saw on the forecasts that it was going to be snowing above 700 meters,” one director said. “They were very insistent that the stage start. It was strange.”

Quiet tensions seem to be boiling over at Paris-Nice. With ASO threatening to pull its high-profile trove of races out of the WorldTour, there is a growing gap of suspicion and mistrust between cycling’s most important race organizer and the top teams. Whether it’s been on purpose or simply coincidental due to the cold and wet weather so far, riders have been coming to the pre-stage sign-in area very late every day, something that is angering race organizers, who are keen to show off cycling’s top stars to local fans and community leaders (who pay ASO to host their events). Even Thursday, nearly 80 riders still had yet to sign on just 10 minutes before the sign-on protocol was scheduled to close.

Publicly, riders decided to remain diplomatic, but there was a sense of new fracture lines within the already fractured professional peloton.

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