The Race to the Sun is the first major stage race of the year, with Giro and Tour GC hopefuls coming to France to show off their form.
Team Sky has dominated this race in recent years, with Brad Wiggins, Richie Porte, and Geraint Thomas taking four of the previous five editions. Last year’s race saw a stage cancellation due to in climate weather, and though the temperature was slightly warmer this year, rain on the first two stages made for an exciting World Tour stage race.
Stage one showed a small climb a little over 1km to go that would make for an interesting technical sprint. the windy weather conditions, however, were prime for echelons, which split the peloton into four groups, with big GC names like Alberto Contador (Trek Segafredo), Richie Porte (BMC), and Simon Yates (Orica Scott) left chasing in group 2. Heading up the day’s final climb, Julian Alaphilippe (Quickstep Floors) and Arnaud Demaré (FDJ) broke away and descended into the finish together, where 2016 Milan Sanremo winner Demaré took the stage win and yellow jersey. The first group of contenders finished 19 seconds behind the frenchmen, while the second group limited their loses to only about a minute.
Stage two was a day for the sprinters, but with another rainy day, a breakaway effort by Belgian National Champion Philippe Gilbert (Quickstep Floors) threatened to spoil the sprinters’ day. Echelons early on in the stage made for an almost repeat of the previous day, with GC favorite Porte losing significant time and sprinter teammates doing large amounts of work throughout the day. FDJ, defending the lead of Demaré, put in a huge effort to close the former World Champion Gilbert. The Quickstep rider entered the final kilometers suffering, and the gap fell dramatically as the reduced peloton swallowed any hope of a breakaway victory. In the final sprint, Trek’s John Degenkolb and FDJ’s Demaré went early, but were unable to hold their speed to the line, as Bahrain Merida’s Sonny Colbrelli timed the sprint perfectly to take his and Bahrain’s first World Tour victory.
Sunny and beautiful, stage three showed another sprint finish after a textbook stage through France. Quickstep brought Marcel Kittel to the front with about 250 meters to go, a distanced he claimed was slightly early. John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha Alpecin) quickly closed in on the fading Kittel, but it was the Irishman Sam Bennet (Bora Hansgrohe) who came through the field in a perfectly timed sprint to escape with his first ever World Tour win.
The 14.5km time trial on stage four finished uphill on Mount Brouilly, making it a day for the climbers. Looking to make up time, Alberto Contador put in an impressive time trial and took the hot seat while waiting for stage rivals Gallopin and Alaphilippe to finish. The Lotto Fixall rider Gallopin finished one second down from the Spaniard, but Alaphilippe looked unstoppable on the climb. The frenchman came home 19 seconds ahead of Contador, taking his first ever World Tour win, as well as the yellow jersey. On a side note, Lotto Soudal invoked a UCI rule that allows them to change their name for one race a year. Like last year, the team chose Paris-Nice as the race to highlight one of their main French sponsors Fixall, making the team’s name Lotto Fixall for the week.
The last chance for the sprinters in the race, stage five showed a relatively normal sprint stage, save for a late cross wind section that split the field. It was closed down in a few kilometers, though, leading to a bunch sprint finish. Demaré opened the sprint with Dutch Champion Dylan Groenewegen, but neither could match the force ofthe German National Champion Andre Greipel, who took his second career win at Paris-Nice.
Into the decisive mountain stages, the sixth stage featured two climbs in the finale, with an extremely steep climb as the last kilometer. Simon Yates attacked over the penultimate climb, and opened up quite a gap on his rivals. Yates entered the final ascent with a 46 second advantage, and maintained a good lead until the attacks came from the elite climbing group. Porte was the first to launch, but was quickly marked by Alaphilippe. Porte went again, but this time it was the Colombian National Champion Sergio Henao responding to and countering the move. Yates managed to stay away from the fast approaching Colombian, taking the stage win and moving himself in the top 10 overall. Henao came across the line 17 seconds in arrears, with Porte at 26. Outside the bonuses, the Quickstep duo of Dan Martin and Juliann Alaphilippe limped across the line 29 seconds behind Yates.
The big decisive mountain finish up the Col de la Couilloie will ultimately determine the overall victor. Lillian Calmejane (Direct Energie) lead solo into the climb, having dropped his breakaway companions on the penultimate climb. Astana’s Jakub Fuglsang put in a brave effort, but was ultimately caught into an elite climbing group of Trek’s Alberto Contador and Jarlison Pantano, Sky’s Sergio Henao and David Lopez, Quickstep’s Dan Martin and Julian Alaphilippe, the Izagirre brothers Jon (Bahrain Merida) and Gorka (Movistar) and Richie Porte. Pantano put in a HUGE effort on the front that caused the aforementioned riders to pull clear of the other contenders, Pantano continued to pull harder, and dropped the yellow jersey Alaphilippe before ending his day. Porte attacked soon after, but was easily marked by the GC contenders Contador and Henao. On his fourth attempt at an attack, Porte finally broke clear and was never seen again. Contador and Henao rode well together to chase down Porte and open as wide a gap as possible on the Quickstep riders. With Alaphilippe as good as done, it was up to Martin to be Quickstep’s hope for victory. Contador, knowing that he must drop Henao to have a chance at overall victory, dug deep and attacked the Colombian, going clear with just under 1 km to. Porte took the stage by 21 seconds over Contador. Henao was caught on the line by Dan Martin, who grabbed precious bonus seconds while Henao did not. Regardless, Henao took the yellow jersey by 30 seconds over Martin and 31 seconds over Contador.
The final stage finish along the promenade de Nice is iconic for its gorgeous view of the Cote d’Azur and exciting finishes. Last year, Contador attacked Sky’s Geraint Thomas, but was closed down in the final kilometer by the Welshman, securing Sky’s victory. A repeat of this was to take down this year, as Alberto Contador doesn’t race for second. With over 50km to go, Jarlinson Pantano came to the front and opened a gap with Contador, forcing splits in the peloton. Once Pantano had done all he could, Contador attacked up the Côte De Peille, and only Sergio Henao could follow his wheel. Dan Martin lost contact, and at the 50km mark, Henao lost the Spaniards’ wheel as wheel. Contador joined the large early breakaway, and crested the top of the climb 14 seconds behind four leaders on the road, and 28 seconds ahead of the group of Sergio Henao. On the decent, Contador’s group swelled to 14 as they caught the breakaway. With a gap of 33 seconds holding on the decent, Contador moved himself into the virtual yellow jersey.
By the time the first group made it to the base of the Col d’Eze, the gap was at 41 seconds with 23km to go. In Eze, Contador had extended his lead on Henao to over a minute, and picked up two bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint with 13km to go. The break was now down to three with Contador, David Delacruz (Quickstep), and Marc Soler (Movistar) able to stay together up the climb. Soler broke solo towards the top of the climb, but was caught on the decent. With the kilometers ticking down and the time gap doing the same, Bahrain Merida tried to close down the gap to give Colbrelli a shot at the stage victory. Inside the last kilometer, Delacruz and Contador contested a two up sprint for the stage, with Delacruz taking the win. Contador took a six second time bonus on the line, but the yellow jersey group came home 21 seconds behind, giving Sergio Henao the yellow jersey by a margin of 2 seconds.
Sky wins the race for the fifth time with four different riders, and shows their form in preparation for the first grand tour of the season, the Giro d’Italia.
The World Tour racing continues with Tirreno Adriatico, which has been running since March 8th and which concludes on March 14th. The next big stage race to start will be the Volta a Catalunya which begins on Monday March 20th. La primavera, Milan Sanremo, is the first monument of the season as well as the longest race on the calendar, and will be held on Saturday March 18.