By David Hunter
Nice – La Madone d’Utelle 177km
Time to see if Michael Matthews can win this race!
This stage is a hugely demanding day for the peloton, with 7 categorised climbs. They must get over 5 cat 2s and 2 cat 1s. All day long, they are climbing or descending. A stage with no flat kilometres is very unusual. Yes, the final climb isn’t the hardest, but they will be tired by that point, making the climb very difficult.
The Madone is a favourite training climb of many riders, especially those based in Monaco. A lot of riders know this area well and will feel confident about their chances. Michael Matthews is one of those Monaco residents! The big question does surround him. Can he remain in contention to win the GC? He clearly is in great form and he has the ability to climb with the GC riders, the amount of climbing during the stage will be a problem, as will a lack of teammates. It’s hard to see Matthews having many riders left deep into the stage, Simon Yates will be the only one. I don’t see Matthews capable of staying in yellow, I think we’ll see him slide down to around 10th position. That would still be an amazing effort from him and a sign of what to expect in the future.
The real GC battle is only between a handful of riders: Contador, Thomas, Dumoulin, Porte, Izagirre and Bardet. Yes, we do have other riders that could challenge, but these 6 riders are better than the rest. As I’m discounting Matthews, Tom Dumoulin is the reference point. Here are the time gaps:-
Izagirre and Thomas – 5 seconds
Porte – 13 seconds
Contador – 19 seconds
Bardet – 28 seconds
With 10 seconds on offer for the stage winner, whoever crosses the line first, could well take over the yellow jersey. The final stage is also demanding, but I would imagine that a few sprinters will make it to the end, stopping a GC rider from getting a time bonus. The yellow jersey should be decided on the slopes of the Madone.
The pressure is on Contador, it always is! Being 14 seconds behind Thomas isn’t a big deal, especially if he takes the stage win. Contador won the Malhao stage in the Algarve by 20 seconds, but he was far down on GC. That day, there was no need for Thomas to chase him, the Welshman finished the stage 28 seconds behind the Spaniard, but still won the GC. The stage looks great for Alberto, he has amazing stamina and loves to put his opponents under pressure. With him around, you can never relax, he could attack from anywhere.
This is a huge moment for Geraint Thomas. Taking his first world tour stage race would be a big achievement and help to convince any doubters of his Tour de France credentials. As always, Team Sky are very strong. He can count upon the help of Boswell, Roche, Nieve and Henao. This will mean that Thomas will only have to come to the front, deep into the final climb. In terms of team strength, only Tinkoff and Movistar can compete.
Tinkoff will hope to have Contador, Majka, Kiserlovski, Poljanski and Trofimov around on the final climb. That is a strong climbing unit and I like the addition of Trofimov, an underrated rider. Contador was impressive on Malhao and looks in good form. He knows that he must gain time on Porte, Thomas, Izagirre, Dumoulin and Matthews. This is not going to be easy, but he does like a challenge.
Movistar have Ion Izagirre, Fernandez, Jesus Herrada and Gorka Izagirre. Of the three big teams, this is the weakest, but still stronger than the rest. I just wonder how big the gaps will be on this climb, between the top riders. It certainly isn’t the toughest climb in the world, but it all depends on how fast the riders want to go. Izagirre has looked the good all week. He seems to be in attack mode and his form is building nicely. He was 4th in Valenciana(due to a crash) and 2nd in Algarve. Before the race started, I doubted he would win this as it lacked a medium length TT, I stand by that prediction. In climbing terms, he’s a little behind the others.
The man sitting pretty is Tom Dumoulin. He’s already displayed good form this year, finishing 4th on the Green Mountain. If you can handle 10km at 10%, this climb should not pose any problems. Dumoulin is a rider that likes to climb a mountain at his own tempo, he struggles to respond to attacks. How he responds to Contador will be fascinating. We are all aware that Contador loves to break riders like this, with continued attacks. Looking at Giant-Alpecin, only Laurens Ten Dam will be capable of staying with the lead group. That lack of support is a concern to me. Dumoulin will hope that other teams will have numbers and want to chase. If Matthews is distanced, the pressure shifts to his shoulders.
Romain Bardet was brilliant in Oman, much better than Dumoulin. Against an in-form Nibali, he almost broke him. Such early form is a great sign for the young Frenchman, need I remind you we haven’t had a French win here since 1997. I love his attacking spirit, couple that with his climbing ability and you have one great rider. He might even get a little bit of freedom, that would be a huge mistake for all concerned.
Richie Porte hasn’t had a wonderful start to the year. His form does seem to be improving and he has a great record in this race. If he wants co-leadership at the Tour, he needs some big results. Paris-Nice is a huge race, a win here would certainly help. Porte is a great climber and excels in one week races, this climb should really suit him. He is capable of grinding a big gear for a long period of time, thanks to all those years riding for Team Sky. He was terrible in Oman, winning here would be a huge turnaround.
After a relatively easy climb, the final 300m rises at 11%. With the small gaps between the GC riders, the race could be decided right at the very end. It does present one final opportunity, if a small group arrives together.
Matthews will be worn down, but Yates will continue to fly the flag for Orica. The big six riders will battle it out for stage and GC glory. The most likely scenario is a Contador stage win, but Thomas takes yellow. The Spaniard is 14 seconds down on the Welshman, that is too much considering the climbing ability of Thomas.
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