Hectic Paris-Nice feels a lot like summer

Nerves ratchet up at the "Race to the Sun" with crosswinds, crashes

Photo: Graham Watson

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NEMOURS, France (VN) — If Paris-Nice looks and feels a lot like the Tour de France, that’s no mistake.

Media giant ASO owns both races and much of the traveling hardware and infrastructure that’s featured in July gets a dry run each March.

While the finish-line banners, podiums and race barriers might look familiar, the racing is supposed to be something else. If the Tour is “show time,” Paris-Nice is supposed to be spring training.

Monday’s 195km first stage across narrow farm roads and wind-blown wheat fields south of Paris had the intensity and danger of any Tour stage. The stage was rife with crashes, splits in the peloton, and desperate chases by GC favorites to stay in the front group.

“Boof!” said Andreas Klier (Garmin-Sharp), shaking his head as he stopped at his the team bus. “That was hard.”

The casualty list was indeed long following a string of major crashes and minor pileups that had riders’ nerves on edge all day.

Pre-race favorite Rui Costa (Movistar) crashed out with under 70 kilometers to go and was transported to a local hospital with fears of a broken wrist.

Olympic bronze medalist Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) grimaced in pain with a bleeding leg and a hematoma on his back suffered in a crash with 55km remaining. He rode in alone, more than 17 minutes down on stage winner Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ).

Kevin Seeldrayers (Astana) kissed the pavement at 160km into the 195km stage when several riders plowed into a traffic island. He crossed the line with deep gashes to both knees and went directly to the hospital. It’s unknown if he’ll start Tuesday’s second stage.

“The road in the final 20km was very dangerous and far too narrow for the end of the race,” complained Astana sport director Dimitriy Fofonov in a team release. “It’s really too bad, because there were around four or five crashes in the last hour of the bike race, and none of them needed to happen.”

American Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) also was involved in a late-stage pileup and came across the line 8:23 back.

In all, three riders abandoned. Joining Costa in an early exit were Jure Kocjan, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Slovenian sprinter, and Pierrick Fédrigo (FDJ), who pulled out due to the flu.

Splitting up in the wind

If the narrow roads and crashing weren’t enough to put riders on edge, heavy crosswinds pelted the peloton in the closing 20km and split the peloton.

A few GC contenders lost contact in the crosswinds to cede 1:53, including Rein Taaramae and Christophe Le Mevel (both Cofidis) and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Sky).

Americans Andrew Talansky (Garmin) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) both kept their GC hopes alive by riding in safely with the front group. But it wasn’t easy.

Van Garderen counted on the support of Daniel Oss and world champion Philippe Gilbert to stay clear of trouble.

“I worked with Oss in the last 70km in the crosswinds. We stayed at the front and managed to avoid a lot of the stress,” Gilbert said. “It will serve me well during the classics.”

Bike racing can still throw some curveballs. After having survived all of that, German sprint ace Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) was well protected by his teammates for the bunch sprint when he punctured with 15km to go.

“That was just bad luck. I am so mad because today was the first time all season where I really felt strong and confident,” Kittel told reporters at the finish line. “I was sure I was going to win today.”

Ian Boswell (Sky) is getting a taste of the bigs in his WorldTour debut this week and rode across the line in the group at 1:53 back.

“I got caught behind a crash and then the group split just as I was chasing back on; there was no way I was going to get across,” Boswell told VeloNews. “I’m here to keep Richie (Porte) out of trouble. There are some more fun days to come. We’ve just got to keep hitting it.”

The fun continues Tuesday in the undulating 200.5km second stage from VImory to Cérilly. The peloton can expect more of the same: narrow roads, crosswinds, and crashes.

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