Lars Boom never doubted his decision to walk away from cyclocross and focus on the road, but some of those ’cross skills probably came in handy in Sunday’s challenging opening-day time trial at the 68th Paris-Nice.
On a hilly course replete with cobblestones, wind and cold weather, the 2008 world cyclocross champion blasted to victory ahead of third-place Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) in the 8km prologue in Monfort-l’Amaury.
“It was quite a thing for me coming from cyclocross to win today. It was much colder and you need to immediately find your rhythm and adapt to the cobblestones,” Boom said after donning the yellow jersey. “I know I probably won’t be able to win the overall, but I’d like to defend the jersey for a few days. I came here to get ready for the classics, my first major goal of the season.”
German veteran Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) narrowly missed victory at three seconds off Boom’s winning time of 10 minutes, 56 seconds. Leipheimer stopped the clock at six seconds off the pace to claim third spot just ahead of Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Astana).
The 38-year-old Voigt, who bounced back last year from his horrific crash in the Tour de France, was jubilant with his performance. The five-time winner of Critérium International (his next major goal later this month)
“If someone had told me this morning that I was going to finish second, I wouldn’t have believed it!” he said. “I am very happy with my performance. It shows at 38, I still have it.”
Other North Americans did well despite challenging conditions. Chris Horner (RadioShack), fresh off second place at the Giro di Sardinia, was 16th at 20 seconds slower and Svein Tuft (Garmin-Transitions) was 17th with the same time.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) was 24th at 27 seconds slower and Craig Lewis (HTC-Columbia) was 32nd at 29 seconds slower.
Bad crash for Steegmans in cold, windy start
Conditions were challenging throughout the day. Strong winds buffeted the riders and Gert Steegmans (RadioShack) was blown off course, breaking his collarbone. Steegmans already survived a hard crash at the Volta ao Algarve two weeks ago and this latest setback will likely take him out of the spring classics.
On a posting on the team’s Web page, RadioShack sport director Dirk Demol described the chaos: “Gert crashed on the descent of the first of two climbs, just on the fastest part where everyone was riding more than 70kph. There was an opening of maybe 20 meters between a house and a hedge. I saw the wind coming. Leaves and branches flew in the air and a second later, Gert was lifted in the air, too.
“He was blown away from the road and tumbled over many times. It was a terrible crash. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It took 12 minutes for the ambulance to arrive while we waited and could do nothing. Gert was screaming all the time. He seemed to have broken more than one thing. This is very bad news for him. He would have been our lead for the classics.”
Temperatures were barely above freezing for the start of the 68th “Race to the Sun.” Spain’s Xavier Tondo (Cervélo) set the first good time at 11:06.
Other big names coming through did well, including David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) at 11:07 and Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) with 11:11. Another former cyclocross star, Peter Hagan (Liquigas), stopped the clock in fifth at 10 seconds off the winning pace.
Pre-race favorites Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) lost some serious time, slotting in at 11:25, while Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) came through with 11:44.
Boom was the first rider to break the 11-minute barrier and his time withstood several challenges, with Voigt coming the closest at three seconds off the pace.
The victory likely harkens good time ahead for Boom, who turned his back on cyclocross after the 2009 worlds and joined Rabobank’s elite team in May. He won the Tour of Belgium in just his third road race last season and then a stage at the Vuelta a España in his grand tour debut last year.
Illness forced Boom out of the Volta ao Algarve two weeks ago, but he was feeling back his best Sunday just in time for what’s expected to be a big push for victory at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix next month.
“I gave everything I had knowing this was a course for me, with a little climb at the start and a fast, hard flat course after,” Boom said after taking the yellow jersey. “I expected a good time, but maybe not that good. To beat riders like Contador, Sánchez and the rest is just fabulous.”
Contador fourth, Sánchez eighth
Defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Astana) couldn’t repeat his prologue victory of a year ago and settled for fourth place, tied with Leipheimer at six seconds off the pace.
“I really don’t know if I could have won, but that’s unimportant, because I am very content with my performance,” Contador said. “It cost me a little to pick up the pace, but then I started to feel more comfortable. I didn’t win, but maybe that’s even better considering the team because we’ll have less responsibility. There are other riders who are strong, but I have been able to make important differences to riders like Chavanel, Schleck and Valverde.”
Defending champion Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) stopped the clock 12 seconds slower than Boom and settled for eighth.
“I would have liked to have repeated what I did in Algarve two weeks,” Sánchez said, referring to his final-day TT win against Contador in the Volta ao Algarve. “The course was demanding, perhaps more than we thought. I was steady throughout the race, but I suffered a little bit from the cold weather in the first part of the race.”
Like Contador, Sánchez said perhaps it’s not a bad thing not to have the responsibility to carry the race in the first few days. With Caisse d’Epargne bringing a strong squad, Sánchez said now he will sit tight until the more decisive stages later in the week.
“What is most important is that I good sensations and that will allow me to take it easy during the next two or three stages,” he said. “I am motivated and confident and now there is nothing else to do but wait for the mountain stages.”
The 68th Paris-Nice continues Monday with the 201.5km first stage from Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines to Contres. There are no rated climbs as the course pushes south across rolling wheat fields away from Paris toward the Loire Valley. Strong winds could play a decisive roll and GC favorites will need to be careful not to get caught out if echelons form. Watch for Saxo Bank to try to force a break in the peloton before what’s likely to be a bunch sprint.