Without the fine bubbles, Champagne would still be a quality white wine, made from good quality fruit by expert winemakers, but it’d be lacking something special.
So it is with Paris-Nice, which still boasts a high quality roster of riders and will almost certainly be closely fought and exciting.
Tom Boonen, Rui Costa, Vincenzo Nibali, Taylor Phinney, Simon Gerrans, John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet, Tejay van Garderen (until he retired from stage 1 with an illness), Carlos Betancur, Rafal Majka, Geraint Thomas, Sylvain Chavanel.
All good names.
But the race is different this year: there are less hills, no summit finishes and no time trials.
The missing fizz is that virtually all of the serious Grand Tour general classification riders have bailed out.
Last year’s winner, Richie Porte, isn’t riding. His bosses at Team Sky decided he would be better off replacing an injured Chris Froome (more on that later) on the hills of Tirreno-Adriatico than spending a week rolling in behind bunch sprints in France.
That was absolutely the right call – defending his title would’ve been virtually impossible for Porte, given the changed nature of the race, and Tirreno-Adriatico will provide better preparation for his major objective, the Giro d’Italia.
Porte told Cycling Central’s Al Hinds that the decision to race in Italy simply made more sense:
“Racing in Italy, that’s where my big goal this year is – at the Giro – so it really does make more sense to go there. And it’ll give me a good gauge to see how the other guys targeting the Giro are going.”
Christian Prudhomme, race director of Paris-Nice and the man who also oversees the Tour de France, was a bit miffed by Sky’s late swapsies, telling AFP: “We find it cavalier to have the reigning champion pull out just before the start.”
Well, Christian, with respect, perhaps you should have considered that before you designed a race that would be damn near impossible for the reigning champion to defend.
The late change should not be a reflection on Porte, even though he seemed pretty happy with the changes. The decision rests with team management, and they’ll be the ones locking horns with Prudhomme over it.
To be fair to Prudhomme, he justified the decision to avoid summit finishes by pointing out the the race will probably be close right until the final stage,
“We did this to make the race attractive. The race can be decided on the flat stages and on the hillier stages to Mont Brouilly, [Mur de] Fayence or even on the last day.”
I suspect he’s right, but the flatter parcours was still a mistake.
There’s enough climbing there to make this race too hard for a pure sprinter to win overall, but a strong all-rounder like Costa should be the favourite.
The first three stages suit sprinters; the next three suit classics riders who can power over short climbs; and the final two have some hard category 1 climbs which should decide the race.
The lack of summit finishes means we should see some sprint finishes from small select groups. The time gaps will be small.
So yes, I still think Paris-Nice will be a really good race to watch. But so what? The classics riders have the classics, the sprinters get a go all the time. Stage races with real hills and high quality fields are rare and special, and this year there’s one less of them.
I don’t like it, but I will still watch it.
One bit of good news for Prudhomme is that Nibali is riding Paris-Nice instead of defending his Tirreno-Adriatico title. I’m not sure if he thinks he can win the race, or whether he’s trying to win over the French public before the Tour.
There is support to be gained from the fickle ‘anyone-but-Sky’ elements of the cycling public, and it’s probably fair to say this year’s Paris-Nice suits Nibali about as well as it suits Porte.
At least Nibali is better known for attacking downhill than Porte, so perhaps he fancies his chances of pinching a win on the trip south.
Meanwhile, Team Sky has been keen to stress that Froome’s injury is nothing too serious, more of a precaution than anything else, and definitely not a sign that the wheels are about to fall off Sky’s 2014 season.
Sky’s team doctor, Dr Alan Farrell, said that “Chris has suffered a slight inflammation to the sacroiliac joint in the lower back. As a precaution we have chosen to withdraw him from next week’s Tirreno-Adriatico so he can focus on recovering and preparing for the Volta a Catalunya.”
Hopefully the situation improves rapidly. I couldn’t bear to spend the next three months speculating about Chris Froome’s pelvis.