There’s something about this week, every year, in cycling that makes me shiver.
The thrill of opening weekend has subsided and the adrenaline rush of the major classics is yet to come. It’s too soon to give any real credence to the relative form of riders and yet it offers us the opportunity to gain a glimpse at them, as they write the opening chapter into the story of the season. And there’s no guarantee that the racing will actually be any good, yet there’s always the promise, the anticipation, and of course, two chances per day to see something unforgettable.
Two major stage races, one in France and one in Italy, both stacked with top riders, both featuring a varied range of stages and both running simultaneously – there’s a fizz about the week, the promise of spring combined with the wild unpredictability of the mid-March weather. The FOMO as you juggle screens in an effort not to miss out on any of the action, flicking between races anticipating decisive moments, trying to keep track of which riders are where, who is relying on who, which sprinters are taking on which finals.
And did I mention the scenery? The stunning hills and beautiful coastlines, the first glimpses of the Alps, pretty towns and dramatic rock formations. What’s not to love?
We’ve seen vintage years – think back to 2021, with the Roglič drama of Paris-Nice combined with the Van Aert/Van der Poel slugfest at Tirreno in 2021 – and some less so, but this year there was much to look forward to, with plenty of intrigue prior to the commencement of hostilities: the reprisal of Pogačar v Vingegaard for the first time since the 2022 Tour de France; the last minute surprise return of Primož Roglič; the possible cyclocross-inspired battles between Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock, and the trialling of a new team time trial format at Paris-Nice. Not to mention the first appearance together of two Groupama-FDJ riders who had experienced a rather public falling out.
So, which stories lived up to their billing, which failed to materialise, and what surprises were there along the way? Here’s a rundown of a thrilling 8 days.
1. In the beginning…
Part of the peculiar charm of Paris-Nice/Tirreno-Adriatico week is the slow build. It’s not dissimilar to a Grand Tour, which often opens with flat stages or time trials before the slow crescendo into hills and later mountains, just played out over a shorter timescale.
The first couple of stages did indeed provide a slow burn of an opening to both races, yet with contrasting disciplines on display on any given day, there was always something to talk about.
The only day where one race stands alone is the first Sunday, when Paris-Nice kicks off, while the Italian contingent gets an extra day of recovery after the rigours of Strade Bianche, which features much of the same start list. It would be an early opportunity for the fast men around the hills of La Verrière, with the ever-desired crosswinds failing to show up and leading to a relatively quiet day, despite the best efforts of Tadej Pogačar to entice Jonas Vingegaard into an early GC test. The Slovenian’s attempts to play were stifled by Vingegaard refusing to go with him as Jumbo-Visma had other interests in the stage with Olav Kooij ready to contest the sprint.
Tim Merlier took first blood for Soudal-QuickStep at the finish, but with plenty of other sprinters nipping at his heels it suggested he might not have things all his own way that week.
Stage 2 at Paris-Nice was more of the same, and with no-one joining him in the breakaway Uno-X’s Jonas Gregaard set out his stall for the week, heading out in search of the limited KOM points alone. While the crosswinds failed to materialise yet again and the collective viewing public sighed in disappointment as the famous Paris-Nice echelons were conspicuously absent, the final 3km or so made up for the somewhat uninspiring day by being incredibly stressful, with several roundabouts and immense amounts of tension. Mads Pedersen kept his nerve to storm to victory, with Olav Kooij improving from 4th in stage 1 to 2nd.
The race between the two seas kicked off actually IN the sea in Italy, or at least it looked that way as the short-but-not-short-enough-to-be-a-prologue time trial took place in apocalyptic conditions, with rain drenching the riders and even hail showing up to join the party. Everyone looked very wet and sorry for themselves, and Wout Van Aert decided not to participate in the competitive element at all, getting his run out of the way early so he could go back and relax at the hotel – smart guy. Elsewhere on the course, two Australian climbers showed they’d done their homework, Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroen) and Jai Hindley (BORA-Hansgrohe) pulling off excellent rides to finish within the top 20. Primož Roglič put in a strong ride to banish any doubts about his form, and Filippo Ganna did what he does and produced a breathtaking display of power to win by almost half a minute over a shell-shocked Lennard Kämna. And, remarkably, no-one crashed.
The tables turned the following day as it was the turn of the Paris-Nice peloton to face the clock, with some notable differences. It was a team time trial, with a tweak to the rules seeing each individual rider able to ride for their own time over the finish line, and the team’s overall time being decided on the fastest individual, thus determining the stage winner.
French labour strikes caused the stage to be condensed, with teams setting off at 3-minute intervals instead of the previously planned 5 minutes, and it led to some awkward situations, as riders who weren’t going all out were caught in the final part of the course by pursuing teams who were pushing to the line.
As they had at La Vuelta, Jayco-Alula excelled, spending time in the hotseat, before Jumbo-Visma deployed their array of time trial specialists in pursuit of victory and a cushion of time for Jonas Vingegaard. It didn’t play out in quite the way the Dane might have hoped, with UAE Team Emirates looking ragged at first, but managing to hold their form to the final kilometre, when Pogačar was let off the leash to rampage to the line alone.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was Groupama-FDJ, who set the fourth fastest time of the day and set David Gaudu up for a good week on GC, Stefan Küng escorting him to the line like a very fast bodyguard. Jumbo-Visma took the stage win, but not the reserves of time they might have hoped for, and even the stage win was almost overturned by a rampaging Magnus Cort, in scintillating form and proving himself master of many disciplines. Just 1 second separated Jumbo-Visma and his EF team at the finish.
At Tirreno it was a flat stage, and the first chance for the rest of the peloton’s sprinters to test their form. Fabio Jakobsen, Mark Cavendish and Dylan Groenewegen were among the fast men hoping to fight for the honours, and it was Fernando Gaviria, now riding for Movistar, who launched first, but Jakobsen timed his effort to perfection and was able to snatch the first of two consecutive opportunities for the fast men.
The Heat is on
While nothing happened of any consequence for the majority of the day on stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico, a lot of ‘peloton rides in straight line down straight road’ taking place, it was still all to play for heading into stage 4 at Paris-Nice. The expected gaps hadn’t materialised in the way some had anticipated following the TTT, and it all kicked off on the hilly stage to La Loges des Gardes. There were finally echelons! We weren’t able to see them as they preceded the broadcast, but there was momentary panic as UAE exploded the peloton and the other GC contenders had to chase back on. Apparently.
Finally we had visuals, just in time to see the breakaway at odds, with Pascal Eenkhoorn and Jonas Gregaard sharing a frank exchange of views, presumably over the shared workload. Pogačar continued to vacuum up all available intermediate sprint points, beating his good pal Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews to the line. It was poised for a full-on GC battle heading into the first summit finish of the week, and the assured dominance of Pogačar throughout the race so far prompted Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard to strike first. Pogačar was equal to it, and once the sting had gone from the attack the rest of the GC gang were able to catch up. Next to go was David Gaudu, but Pogačar had the measure of the Frenchman, too – however, the pressure found out Vingegaard, his original effort proving too great and costing him the opportunity to stick with the two leaders. He blew up and was passed on his way to the line by a number of other riders, in a finish that was eerily reminiscent of stage 11 of last year’s Tour when he broke Pogačar No matter, said the team. It’s only March – the season’s main goals are ahead.
Back in Tirreno, and in spite of a relatively dull day, heading into Foligno there was drama as Wout Van Aert and a number of his Jumbo-Visma team mates drilled it on the front with just under 10km remaining, forcing everyone to wake up early as they split the bunch, taking a small group with them. It caused panic among the sprinters’ teams who had to fight to regain the opportunity to contest the final, but in the end, a perfectly executed lead-out from Mathieu Van der Poel ensured no-one could match the final sprint of Jasper Philipsen, and Alpecin-Deceuninck finally broke their 2023 duck, taking their first win of the season.
There’s always at least one day when the competing narratives of the two races intertwine to produce a day of breathless, hectic anticipation and screen-switching and for me, that day was 9th March. Stage 5 at Paris-Nice was memorable as the day in which the public spat between Groupama-FDJ teammates Arnaud Démare and David Gaudu was put to rest in what David Millar described as a ‘public display of affection’ (thanks Never Strays Far). In an audacious move to upset the status quo, sprinter Démare led out his team leader David Gaudu for the intermediate sprint, and Gaudu – who has proven in the past he has a strong finish on him – was able to power clear of Pogačar to snatch 4 extra bonus seconds, bringing him to within 6 seconds of the GC lead. He turned to acknowledge the contribution of the man who he’d openly declared war on, and yet again Groupama proved they were equal to the task, and were riding an excellent team race.
The final would be a sprint, with some confusing roundabouts to contend with on the run-in, and it was Olav Kooij who proved strongest, taking the big win he’d been hinting at all of last season and teasing in the two previous sprint finishes. He became the youngest rider in over a decade to win a stage of Paris-Nice – and it was just one of the reasons that Jumbo-Visma fans would be celebrating, come the end of the day.
At Tirreno, it was finally time for the GC men to stretch their legs, and where Primoz Roglič was concerned, the legs were hairy, and he wasn’t afraid to point it out to interested journalists. It was Julian Alaphillippe though who threw down the gauntlet in his usual style, but it didn’t last long before he was reeled back in. Ganna – still wearing the leaders’ blue jersey – and Van Aert drove the pace for a while causing splits, but Van Aert was knocked off his line by a teammate and collided with Tom Pidcock, ending the day for both of them, at least in terms of being competitive. In a heart-warming display of sportsmanship, Van Aert went immediately to check on the health of his cyclocross buddy, before both remounted their bikes and rode away together, sporting matching road rash on their bottoms.
Hirsute limbs notwithstanding, the surprise return of the elder Slovenian cannibal to the fold was marked by a strong ride into Tortoreto, where a reduced bunch fought their way up the final incline in close quarters with many potential winners having their noses in the wind at one point or another. Alaphillippe came the closest on the punchy finish, but Roglič surged through to win with relative ease in the end, though with not quite enough time to take control of the GC – the blue jersey transferred from Ganna to the somewhat narrower shoulders of Bora-Hansgrohe’s Lennard Kämna.
Wild winds swept across the continent on Friday, and while organisers at Tirreno opted to shorten the final climb, bringing the summit finish to an ‘almost-summit finish’ 2km further down the Fonte Lardina climb in Sassotetto. ASO did not want to take the risk in the Race to the Sun, and with the stage cancelled, all eyes were on Italy, where the high winds played havoc with the riders, the breakaway blown all over the road without strength in numbers, and congratulating one another on lasting as long as they did.
Ascending to the snowy slopes, the climbers rose to the fore and Damiano Caruso tried his luck at a solo charge, but Enric Mas pulled the rest back and the likes of Mikel Landa, Giulio Ciccone and Hugh Carthy were all in the mix. As the line beckoned, Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan-Hart looked promising, but with Wilco Kelderman safely depositing Roglič on the wheel of the leaders the Slovenian was easily able to once again poach a smart victory, with the bonus seconds enough to launch him into the blue jersey (though it should be noted that Lennard Kämna remained in the front group of 16 right to the line).
The curtain falls
So to the final weekend, and the buzz of the preceding few days had ebbed slightly as the rampant Slovenians looked to have their respective GCs all but wrapped up. Granted, Tirreno-Adriatico was a closer affair, but with the queen stage already past, it would take something special to unseat Roglič.
Crashes marred the first of two mountain stages at Paris-Nice, with Josh Tarling ending his stint as the second youngest rider ever to race Paris-Nice with a trip to the hospital (he was fine) and Thomas de Gendt coming down and bringing Mattias Skjelmose with him – both men were unable to finish the stage.
Heading to the business end of the day, a monster turn from Tobias Foss ensured the peloton was scattered down the Col de la Couillole like confetti, and he set up Vingegaard for another bite at the UAE cherry, but while he measured his effort better, once again he was not up to the level of Pogačar and Gaudu, who rode away from him at the finish. A clear pecking order established, with Vingegaard third best. It stayed that way on the final day, with the ride to Col e’Eze more exciting in its first half than its second. A day through the mountains of Nice, the short, sharp stage gave no respite to the tired riders, being up and down all day and shelling out anyone not up to the task of repeat climbs very early on.
The hero of the hour was undoubtedly Uno-X’s valiant polka-dotted warrior, the Dane Jonas Gregaard, who had been single-mindedly amassing KOM points all week and was determined to take the jersey home. Despite the race immediately smashing into pieces Gregaard made it over the first two climbs at the head of the race and had to crest just one more category 2 ascent to put the win out of reach of even Tadej Pogačar, who sat in second place. The GC group were drawing agonisingly close, but Gregaard dug deep and put in a monster effort to seal the deal, his face contorted as he made sure of the final set of points. He immediately sat up and radio’ed the good news back to his team – he would be the only rider other than Pogačar to take home a winner’s jersey.
The day played out according to the script after that: the GC group pulled clear on the penultimate climb, and Tadej Pogačar attacked on the Col d’Eze, with the rest unable to follow, although Gaudu did make a valiant effort to do so, for a while.
The young Slovene won by 53 seconds in the end, with Gaudu in an impressive second place and Vingegaard 1.39 behind the leader.
The final GC day at Tirreno was another hilly day, with the classic Italian hilly circuit race format deployed, three times over the Osimo climb and the undulating landscape around it which produced a fun day out for the peloton, at least from a spectator’s perspective. The repeated circuits put pressure on the riders less comfortable with the climbs and the pace at the front of the bunch shelled plenty of riders out the back. Wilco Kelderman crashed, and as the bunch took on the circuit for the final time, a group containing Aleksandr Vlasov and Guillaume Martin escaped for a while. They were eventually reeled in by the GC group as the pace increased, with UAE Team Emirates pacing on the front for João Almeida and INEOS for Tao Geoghegan-Hart. The break were caught on the final climb with 5km remaining and the GC riders launched immediately into attack mode, with Mikel Landa and Hugh Carthy among the early aggressors, with Roglič and Almeida close behind.
With around 8 riders still in contention coming into the final steep cobbled climb up into Osimo, Enric Mas led the charge, with Geoghegan-Hart, Roglič and Almeida in the wheels. Precisely no-one was surprised when Roglič proved the strongest over the line, but it was a promising week for a range of other GC hopefuls.
The final day saw another circuit race, this time on flat roads around San Benedetto del Del Tronto. It was one for the sprinters, and the victor was once again Philipsen, who won a more complicated final bunch sprint, led out by Mathieu van der Poel who had taken the week to finally nail his lead-out man role for his team.
ICYMI – The Best of the Rest
What conclusions can be drawn? With the cycling media generally circling around the subject of Vingegaard’s form, Pogačar’s dominance and Roglič’s inclusion (or lack thereof) in the Jumbo-Visma Tour de France team, I will instead step away from the speculation and take a sideways look at some of the things that happened around the racing, that you might have missed, courtesy of the bookmarks I left on my Twitter timeline.
Road Safety issues!
Route planning is difficult, I have no doubt. But some of these issues could have been avoided. Fetch a cushion to hide behind, and review this short visual summary of just a few of the situations that led to riders being less safe than they ideally should be, at both of last week’s races.
Play spot the course official on this one from Tirreno.
Roundabouts on the run-in to a sprint finish at Paris-Nice – less than ideal.
Tirreno again, this time presented in the medium of badly-arranged police tape. And another official hiding.
All’s fair in love and road furniture – another example from Paris-Nice to prove that both races had their issues.
Sportsmanship! It’s brilliant!
Two examples of the type of great sportsmanship that make this sport so heart-warming at times.
A peloton trident!
Imagine the peloton organising a flashmob – this would be it.
Top 3 GC riders not to write off!
While the two Slovenian cannibals ate their fill, there were a selection of riders who could cause an upset, if they ever find themselves on an off day, or, y’know, not on the startlist.
(1) David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) – it’s an obvious choice, but it bears repeating: Gaudu is the brightest spark in the bunch when it comes to French hopes for a good run at the Tour de France. He’s proven beyond a doubt that his team should throw their support behind him come July.
(2) Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) – continuing the good run of form he’s shown so far this season, Tao was in the mix for all the big finishes and proved to be the closest rival to Roglič, and I for one am here for his return to form, ahead of the Giro d’Italia.
(3) João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) – the Portuguese is incredibly consistent and labours away in his metronomic style quietly getting the job done. He showed his team why they should support him at the Giro, mainly by being noticeably better than Adam Yates.
Honourable mentions: it was great to see Hugh Carthy, Giulio Ciccone and Mikel Landa all in good early form. Lennard Kämna continues to prove his abilities as a GC rider, too.
Top 3 young guns rising!
With the might of the huge presences around them, the three young riders who took a step up this week were:
1. Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) – often a feature of breakaways in 2021 and 2022, the American almost won a stage of the Tour de France last year, but he well and truly bridged the gap to future GC challenger at Paris-Nice this week.
2. Kevin Vauquelin (Arkea-Samsic) – fresh from his maiden victory at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, the young Frenchman was visible a number of times through the week in Paris-Nice, and finished third in the young rider category, behind Pogačar and Jorgenson.
3. Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) won an impressive 10 races in his first pro season in 2022, but nothing on the level of Paris-Nice – his scintillating form at Paris-Nice hints at a huge future for the young fast man.
We’ve all grown up, let’s be sensible!
OK it’s probably not fair to call it a disappointment but having built up to the return of cyclocross bash brothers to the road together, it was a little sad not to see them clash. Both Van Aert and Van der Poel were clear that they were working for their teams and not really targeting stages, and they dutifully followed through on their promises. Pidcock was likely carrying tired legs from his epic win at Strade Bianche, and then Van Aert and Pidcock crashed, the latter crashing again the next day and stepping off the race. All in all, it never really got off the ground for the three off-road superstars (pun not really intended).
Instead, let’s reframe the disappointment as an acknowledgement that perhaps, particularly in the case of Van Aert and Van der Poel, they have grown up a little – they have understood that flogging themselves to win a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico probably ISN’T the way to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix – and they measure their efforts as they work towards more important goals later in the season. Fair enough, right