Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Down to the wire at Paris-Nice
Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International