BELLEVILLE, France (VN) — Things are clear as mud midway through the 72nd Paris-Nice, and that sits just fine with race organizers.
Geraint Thomas (Sky) will don the leader’s jersey ahead of Thursday’s fifth stage, but the GC is just starting to heat up, and nothing is decided.
In fact, the overall at the “Race To The Sun” is as far from decided as possible.
With an unconventional route, without mountaintop finales or time trials, the 2014 Paris-Nice is a work in progress. No one quite knows how it’s going to turn out. Whether this experiment turns out to be a good one, no one knows, but it seems that excitement is guaranteed.
“It’s going to be an exciting race, that’s for sure,” Thomas said after taking a slender, three-second lead on overnight leader John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) Wednesday.
No less than 55 riders will start within 18 seconds of first place with four stages to go. That normally wouldn’t be worthy of mention, but this Paris-Nice is unlike any other. At this point, more than a dozen of those top riders could win. That reality is heightening tension, and putting everyone on edge.
Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) darted to victory Wednesday, and positioned himself to strike later in the week for the overall.
Slagter is no slouch in picking up time bonuses, as he revealed last year en route to winning the Santos Tour Down Under. The daily intermediate sprint in each of the remaining four stages offers bonuses of 3, 2, and 1 second for the top three. And Thomas admitted that Slagter has a strong kick ideal for picking up the finish-line bonuses.
“Today was the first day of the GC, and things went pretty well,” Slagter said. “The team has supported me, and has confidence I can go well here. The GC is just starting. We’ll see what happens.”
When Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman bolted out of the chase group under the red kite Wednesday, it was not just with the idea of winning the stage in mind, but also picking up one of the 10-, 6-, or 4-second time bonuses at the line.
“I went for the stage, but I was also thinking about the time bonuses,” Kelderman said. “The time bonuses are going to be very important in this race.”
Among the danger men within a half-minute on GC and able to deliver a sprint that could garner bonus time are Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). In fact, Thomas, Slagter, Degenkolb, and J.J. Rojas (Movistar) are separated in the overall by less than the 10-second winner’s bonus.
And with 16 teams represented by riders within 30 seconds of the yellow jersey, the hilly finales over the remainder of the race — particularly on Friday in Fayence and Sunday in Nice — should prove very difficult to control. If Tour de France owner ASO wanted the antithesis of the measured racing doled out by Sky over the last two seasons, mission accomplished.
Paris-Nice has left some GC hopefuls behind
While the top of the GC is murky, the men who have lost their chances halfway through the race are clear.
Days before the race started, defending champ Richie Porte (Sky) jumped ship to start the more GC-friendly Tirreno-Adriatico, where there are plenty of climbs and time trials to give the big tour riders a fitting early season challenge. Then Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), third overall last year, pulled out with a stomach bug.
A dangerous finishing circuit in the opening stage delivered a costly blow to several top favorites. Several key players lost time right off the bat, including Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), who each lost more than one minute.
Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), whose partner recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, shed two minutes in the first stage as well.
With four stages to go, anything could happen. With all the big GC favorites heading to Italy, that suits Paris-Nice just fine. At least for now.