Geraint Thomas Wins Paris-Nice
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas won the 2016 edition of Paris-Nice despite attacks from Alberto Contador on the final stage.
Thomas was always in contention for the win as he led a strong Team Sky team, even though it failed to perform in the initial 6.1km prologue with Sky’s best placed rider being Thomas, who finished 7″ behind the winner Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
Matthews retained his yellow jersey after the first road stage with FDJ’s Arnaud Demare taking the victory in the bunch sprint ahead of Ben Swift (Team Sky) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) after a tough day which saw the peloton battered by wind and snow on the dirt roads more suited to Paris-Roubaix than Paris-Nice.
Controversy marred Stage 2 with Bouhanni and Matthews fighting dogfighting in the bunch sprint to take victory on the flat stage. The contest between the two looked to have been won by Bouhanni but he was later relegated from the win after he was judged to have deviated from his line in the sprint, which saw Matthews almost forced into the barriers.
Stage 3 saw something of a rarity in professional cycling – a stage cancellation. The race was supposed to finish on Mont Bruilly but when the riders were in the feedzone the snow on the course was so bad the organisers chose to cancel the stage, with all times unaffected although sprint and mountain points already won remained in play.
Bouhanni managed to get his win eventually on Stage 4 in Romans-Sur-Isere after his Cofidis team dominated the peloton in the last few kilometers. In a straight sprint for the line Bouhanni was able to out-sprint Looto-Soudal’s Andre Greipel and Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) to take the win with Matthews finishing in 5th to hold onto the yellow jersey and his 14″ lead over second place Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin).
With three category 2 climbs and a category 1 climb up Mont Ventoux Stage 5 was ideally placed to shake up the GC, but the main contenders kept their powder dry for most of the day allowing a breakaway to stay out until the last 20km.
It looked as if it was going to be another sprint finish with Matthews in yelllow after he had managed to stay in the peloton all day, but Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko attacked on the final descent on the Col de Seze and managed to catch the remnants of the breakaway with 17km to go. With sprint teams hot on his heels – Katusha were the main team in control as they tried to deliver Alexander Kristoff to the stage win – he managed to get a gap of 40″ with 10km to go making him the virtual leader on the road after starting the day 33″ behind Matthews.
Katusha’s efforts managed to shave another 10″ off of Lutsenko’s advantage but weren’t enough to deliver Kristoff to a bunch sprint and Lutsenko finished 21″ ahead of Matthews, not enough to put him in yellow but enough to move him up to second in the GC with a deficit of 6″ to Matthews and 12″ ahead of Dumoulin.
Stage 6 was the Queen stage and this was always going to be a make or break day for those who wanted to win the race. With five category 2 climbs and two category 1s including the finish on the category 1 La Madone d’Utelle, excitement and action was guaranteed.
The stage went down to the final climb with the last of the breakaway riders being caught at the foot of the Madone bu a chasing group of around 20 riders – including Thomas, Contador and defending champion Richie Porte (BMC). Thomas and Contador both tried to attack from this group but were unable to break completely clear, creating a group of Thomas, Contador, Porte and Katusha’s Illnur Zakarin which stayed together until the last km with several riders attempting to bridge up to them from the fractured peloton.
With Matthews having cracked early on the Madone the race lead was up for grabs and as the three GC contenders watched each other carefully, Zakarin took his opportunity to attack and out-sprint the others to take the stage win. Thomas was second and Contador third, putting Thomas in the race lead with Contador 15″ behind him and Zakarin 20″ behind going into the final day.
Stage 7 was another heavy climbing day with 2 category 2s, two category 1s and two category 3s to tackle before the finish in Nice.
The attacks from Contador started on the penultimate climb of the category 1 Cote de Peille and continued as the Spaniard tried to wear out Thomas, who remained calm and used his team to keep bringing Contador back in touch.
On the final climb – the category 1 Col d’Eze – it looked as though Thomas was finished as Contador continued to attack and managed to create a gap of 35″ on the final climb along with Porte as the pair picked up Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) who had been in the break and raced to Nice.
Thomas managed to do just enough on the descent and flat into Nice to get the gap down to just 5″ as Wellens outsprinted both Porte and Contador to take the stage win whilst Thomas managed to hold onto the yellow jersey and win the general classification.