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Alberto Contador lost the 75th Paris–Nice on Sunday to Sergio Henao by two seconds, the smallest margin in the French stage race’s history—but the sport of cycling won. Maybe Contador’s thrilling attacks on the final weekend of the eight-day race merited the overall victory—after he was already runner-up by four seconds to Henao’s Team Sky teammate Geraint Thomas a year ago—but the Trek-Segafredo rider’s defeat only emphasized the importance of treating every stage with the utmost respect. That was also true at the 52nd Tirreno-Adriatico, where Thomas, not Nairo Quintana, would have taken the overall victory this week if Team Sky hadn’t lost three men to broken wheels and conceded 1:20 to Quintana’s Movistar squad in the opening-day team time trial.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada
Being focused on every stage is especially true for the weeklong Paris–Nice that, over the past 20 years, has never been won by more than a minute and by fewer than 15 seconds on 10 occasions. Contador was in a jam from the very first day when he failed to get into the front echelon in powerful crosswinds and spent considerable energy in a 100-kilometer chase, eventually conceding a vital 55 seconds to Henao’s group. Inexplicably, on a second day of strong winds, Contador again didn’t make it to the front echelon—where Henao was again protected by Luke Rowe, one of Team Sky’s classics specialists. This time though, after another 100-kilometer chase, Contador’s group did close down a two-minute deficit before the day’s finish.
The stage 4 time trial saw Contador begin his comeback by placing second to Julian Alaphilippe on the summit of Mont Brouilly to take back 29 seconds from Henao. That left the Spanish rider 26 seconds adrift of Henao before the final three stages across Provence to the French Riviera. Contador’s gap returned to 48 seconds when Henao, the recent solo winner of the Colombian national road championship, made a strong finish on the short, but ultra-steep climb to Fayence last Friday.
Then, on Saturday, came the long, technical and testing climb to a mountaintop finish at the remote Col de la Couillole. Contador’s Trek teammate Jarlinson Pantano set such a fierce early tempo that race leader Alaphilippe was dropped with 10 kilometers still to climb. And though defending champion Richie Porte of BMC Racing—who’d lost a quarter-hour in the stage 2 crosswinds—went clear to win the stage, Contador was able to grind Henao off his wheel at the very top. That effort reduced his gap to 31seconds on Henao, who took over the yellow jersey from Alaphilippe, while Quick-Step’s Dan Martin moved into second place, at 30 seconds.
Everyone knew that Contador would attack in an attempt to overcome his half-minute deficit on Sunday’s final stage—a five-climb, 115.5-kilometer loop around the Maritime Alps in the Nice backcountry. Even so, it came as a shock on the second-last climb when, after an acceleration by Colombian teammate Pantano, Contador first dropped Martin and, two attacks later, also dropped Henao, with 50 kilometers still to race.
Contador quickly caught a dozen-strong breakaway group, and went to the front on the long, twisting downhill toward and then along the Moyenne Corniche road high above the Mediterranean Sea. The Spaniard had no teammates to help him, while Henao was being paced by two Sky teammates—his cousin Sebastian Henao and Spain’s David Lopez—while Quick-Step’s Alaphilippe and Martin were also riding hard. Even so, when they reached the foot of the final climb, the Col d’Èze, Contador had a 35-second advantage, which made him the virtual race leader.
The 7.7-kilometer, 5.7-percent Èze climb has traditionally been the venue for Paris–Nice’s closing time trial. This time, Contador was riding a different kind of time trial, climbing so fast that he dropped all but two of the men in the breakaway, while Henao was having to answer accelerations by Martin and Alaphilippe as he powered up the climb. By the summit of this climb to the Haute Corniche road, with 16 kilometers still remaining, Contador had pushed his advantage to 57 seconds—though he then had to react to a strong counterattack by one of his two breakaway companions, the young Movistar climber Marc Soler.
“When the gap was one minute,” Henao admitted later, “I started to panic a bit. I knew I’d have to suffer until the final moments.” Indeed, the Colombian had lost all of his teammates by this point and on the repeat downhill along the Moyenne Corniche back to Nice, Henao did everything he could to close the gap. Contador’s advantage did gradually decrease: down to 35 seconds at the 10 kilometers-to-go point; still 35 seconds at 5 kilometers; and just 30 seconds with 3 kilometers left.
Throughout this pursuit match, after Contador reeled in Soler with 7 kilometers to go, he was still being marked by Martin’s teammate David De la Cruz—a psychological deadweight. The Spanish rider stayed glued to Contador’s back wheel until the 2-kilometer mark, where Contador jumped away solo and pushed his lead over Henao to 35 seconds.
The suspense continued. De la Cruz caught back to Contador under the 1-kilometer red kite and then sprinted clear of him on the short finishing straightaway to grab the stage win and its 10-second time bonus. That left Contador with just a six-second bonus—which, along with a two-second bonus he collected on the Col d’Èze, meant the Trek-Segafredo leader needed to finish 23 seconds ahead of Henao to win Paris–Nice for a third time in 11 years….
The gap was 28 seconds with 1.5 kilometers to go, where the 16 men who’d regrouped around Henao began their wind-up to the fourth-place sprint. On the line, the clock was ticking: 18 seconds, 19, 20…and stopped at 21. Contador had lost Paris–Nice to Henao by two seconds!
Over in Italy, Quintana clinched victory at Tirreno–Adriatico on Tuesday by 25 seconds over BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis—who won the closing 10-kilometer time trial at San Benedetto del Tronto. Dennis was also part of BMC’s stage 1 team time trial victory a week earlier. Meanwhile, Thomas ended the seven-day race in fifth overall, 58 seconds behind Quintana—after losing 80 seconds to him in Team Sky’s TTT debacle.
All the details of that disaster have yet to be confirmed, but what’s known is that three of Thomas’ teammates—Gianni Mosconi, Diego Rosa and Mikel Landa—had mechanical problems after at least one of them hit a deep pothole. Mosconi’s three-spoke carbon front wheel disintegrated and his crash also delayed team strongman Vasil Kiryienka. Thomas confirmed that the crash “took Kiry out the back…but then it happened again [to Rosa and Landa] and there was only four of us left….” Because stage times were taken on the fifth finisher of each team Thomas and his three teammates had to wait.
“We had to wait for what felt like forever,” Thomas reported, “and we were freewheeling for a couple of kilometers.” Once Team Sky had five together again, they continued at what might have been a stage-winning pace, eventually conceding 1:42 to winner BMC and 1:20 to Quintana’s Movistar team.
Despite that huge handicap, Thomas rapidly climbed the standings through the week: from 109th overall to 37th after winning the opening road stage in a solo move on the mainly uphill 5 kilometers to the finish; up to eighth after a brilliant second place to Quintana on the mountaintop stage 4 finish at Terminillo; to sixth after coming fourth on the next day’s gnarly hilltop finish at Fermo; and then to his final placing of fifth after taking eighth in the time trial, 16 seconds down on Dennis and 25 seconds faster than Quintana.
For this second overall Tirreno win in three years, Quintana had an initial boost in the team time trial but then staked everything on gaining time on the Terminillo… and not losing too much in the final TT. On the other fours stages, his Movistar teammates had the strength to shelter their leader and control all the breakaways. “I won more with my head than with my legs,” Quintana admitted. So who knows what would have happened had Team Sky and Thomas not suffered their TTT troubles. When Thomas was asked how he viewed his week, the Welsh folk hero said: “If we take out the start, it would have been perfect.”
Contador could have said the same thing. Yes, to win any race as challenging as Paris–Nice or Tirreno–Adriatico, you have to make every stage count.