The Inner Ring | Paris-Nice Stage 3 Preview

    A team time trial with a tricky, hilly first half to trouble the big rouleurs when their leaders need for the run back to the finish.

    A long march: Mother Nature didn’t help, supplying only mild sunshine and the gentlest of headwinds. Jonas Rutsch and Mathieu Burgaudeau went up the road again with Rutsch taking more points for the mountains competition. They were brought back but sprinted later for the second and final climb of the day where double points were on offer and Burgaudeau won to take the mountains jersey. Pascal Eenkhoorn tried a move that was it for the action and without a move up the road the bunch trundled across the Beauce landscape to the finish in Montargis, the average speed with 50km to go was 35km/h, then things picked up for the intermediate sprint won by Danny van Poppel for Roglič, with Mads Pedersen and Mathias Skjelmose next for the time bonuses.

    The sprint win came for Arvid De Kleijn, seemingly cast in the same mould of bulldog sprinters as compatriots Groenewegen and Jakobsen, and so far this season, faster. He’s no up and comer though, aged 29 he’s bounced around smaller teams, think Team Baby Dump. It was also Tudor Pro Cycling’s first World Tour win and with it, increased chances of invitations to more races. We know they’re doing the Giro but De Kleijn said he’s not on the list… for now. Thanks to his second place 21 year old Laurence Pithie took the yellow jersey which he’ll surely hand over to someone else today but he’s having a solid start to the season.

    The Route: 26.9km and a malicious touch with two climbs in the first half which will put the heavyset rouleurs in the red. Coming after just 5km, the first unmarked climb is pretty much as the profile shows 4-5% as it climbs up through apple orchards and then comes a big fast descent down the old Roman road. The next climb is longer and has some 6-7% sections. Then it’s on a Route Nationale back to Auxerre, it is more up and down than the profile shows before the race snakes into Auxerre for an uphill finish that climbs into the town centre.

    The Rules: a team time trial but the winning time is taken on the first rider to cross the line and each rider gets credited with the time they then cross the line with. This means two things:

    • a team is no longer as fast as its fourth or fifth rider, it doesn’t have to finish as a group. If one rider sprints solo to the line and sets the fastest time, their team wins the stage
    • pacing tactics can involve the whole team, they can burn up six riders before launching their best rider into the final climb but teams with multiple GC options will want to stick together.

    Artifice, a gimmick? So is a team time trial based on the time of the fourth rider. It’s not a big deal but makes for a nice talking point on Tuesday in March as we get to see team tactics at work. Paris-Nice actually has a long history of innovation and rule changes, some like air transfers, prologues and the one/three kilometre rule all originated in this race and have become features of the sport.

    The Contenders: the archetypal winning team would have seven Evenepoels, if it was a solo TT he’d be expected to win because he can take time on the flat and the climbs as well. Here our imaginary team would be intact after the two climbs and spinning 58T chainrings on the road back to town. Now this can’t happen so it’ll be interesting to see how teams manage their efforts, a test of cohesion and particularly for squads with more than one GC leader as they can’t launch a rider up the finishing straight in Auxerre, they’ll want to go together.

    Ineos have a strong team and plenty of experience in team time trials and with Josh Tarling and Ben Turner, two solid engines who can also do well on shorter climbs.

    UAE have lots of star names but can they all work together? The power is there and they should be close, plus it’ll be fascinating to see how they ride up the final ramp into Auxerre.

    Visma-LAB won this stage last year but they had a stronger team on paper, this time they ought to be contenders but aren’t such an easy pick for the stage win. Look out for their oversized helmets.

    Next there’s Lidl-Trek, Bora-hansgrohe and Soudal-Quickstep, all with solid teams but a win would be surprising, even if Evenepoel can tow his team mates good luck to them because he’s got a slippery aero profile, there’s just not much shelter behind. Bahrain could be in the mix too.

    Ineos, UAE
    Soudan-QS, Visma-LAB
    Bora-hansgrohe, Lidl-Trek

    Weather: cloudy and cool, just 8°C. A 15km/h wind from the SE means a headwind for the first third and a tricky crosswind across the climbs before a tailwind to the finish.

    TV: the first team is off at 2.40pm and the last team is due in around 4.35pm CET.

    Postcard from Auxerre: today’s start is outside the Abbé Deschamps stadium which, along with Auxerre the city itself, rhymes with Guy Roux. 85 years old, he’s famous in France as the long time coach of football club AJ Auxerre. Long time… as in he was in post for a record 36 years between 1961 and 2005, notable in a sport where even a short losing streak is sufficient to see a manager fired. Roux enjoyed duration and triumph alike, there was plenty of silverware along the way and he “discovered” several champions. He’s become a cult figure for longevity in France, and also for parsimony. His style wasn’t about recruiting superstars but taking on players for low wages and personally investing in them, ringing their doorbell at dawn to get them out of bed; driving past their apartment at night to check the lights were off to be sure they were going to bed early. There’s a story where he even padlocked Basile Boli’s scooter to stop him going out partying which is apocryphal but just adds to the legend.

    Roux is also big cycling fan who’s almost as happy on the sofa watching a race as he is beside the training pitch. His longevity is interesting for pro cycling too. Hilaire Van der Schueren retired last year after decades as a team manager. There are no team managers on the race today who have been in charge for 36 years but the likes of Vincent Lavenu, Marc Madiot, Jean-René Bernaudeau and Patrick Lefevere are not far off, and surely closer to retirement than the start of their managerial careers to put it politely. Yvon Madiot, younger brother of Marc has just retired. There’s succession planning at work to handover the teams and we’ll see what they do in the coming years.

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