Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Tadej Pogačar’s rivals now know the scale of the task after the Slovenian dominated Paris-Nice
The morning after the afternoon before, the key players in Paris-Nice were taking stock of a week’s racing, from the French capital to the Côte d’Azur — a week in which some of them had a bucket of cold water thrown over their progress towards this year’s Grand Tours. There was a select group that was well ahead of other team leaders in this year’s Race to the Sun — and one rider a quantum leap ahead of them. That group emerged from the one thousand kilometres of racing with clarity, while others were left uncertain.
David Gaudu, Jonas Vingegaard (pictured) and Simon Yates, grouped within 21 seconds of each other, can take heart from their performances in a brutal Course au Soleil illuminated by some extraordinary performances from Tadej Pogačar. Honourable mentions too, for Matteo Jorgensen, increasingly showing the durability and resilience to challenge in major stage races, and to Neilson Powless, a little short perhaps of where he hoped to be, but showing greater consistency than ever before.
They all still have time of course. As Vingegaard said, after stepping down from the final podium on the Promenade des Anglais: “I know what I have to do from here to the Tour.”
Others however, were cut adrift too easily, even before the Slovenian’s decisive accelerations, and will be frowning and frustrated. Past double champion Max Schachmann and 2022 podium finisher Dani Martínez were both way below what was expected. There will be reasons, of course, but time is moving on and the Grand Tours are looming.
Martínez, past winner of the Tour of the Basque Country and Critérium du Dauphiné, and highly rated for his climbing and time trialling, is now 26. As Paris-Nice started, Ineos team manager Rod Ellingworth said: “I think it’s an ideal Tour for Dani this year and he’s still growing and improving.”
Yet if UAE and Jumbo Visma have clarity on who their leaders will be for 2023’s Grand Tours, Ineos Grenadiers remain in much the same situation they have been since the loss of Nico Portal, the departure of Chris Froome and Egan Bernal’s unforeseeable eclipse as a result of his horrific training crash last year and injuries.
The team has a clutch of possible Grand Tour leaders in Geraint Thomas, Pavel Sivakov, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Martínez. Meanwhile, they await the return of Bernal, the rider once expected to dominate for years to come. Yet the reality may also be that Bernal’s moment has now gone.
Both Thomas and Geoghegan Hart have of course, already won Grand Tours and the Londoner’s impressive third place to Primož Roglič in Tirreno-Adriatico shows that he has rediscovered his best form. But, faced with an explosive Pogačar, a driven Gaudu and a chastened Vingegaard, plus an owner increasingly seduced by the bright lights of Old Trafford, is the once dominant British team still capable of going toe to toe with UAE or Jumbo?
Thomas used guile and experience to pull off an excellent podium finish in Paris in 2023, but it may be too much to expect that again. And anyway: how long will Jim Ratcliffe, a man who invests in his athletes to win, be happy with anything less than the top step of the podium?
Nobody cares about that in France, though, with all eyes now turning to Gaudu. It’s a weight of expectation that has proven a burden in the past, as his elder team-mate, Thibaut Pinot, will know all too well. But maybe it’s a good thing for Gaudu to have Pinot alongside him, to counsel him through the pressure that will build in the months to come.
“We knew since last year, that David was close to the best riders,” Groupama team director Philippe Mauduit said. “This week he’s shown he’s capable, not just on one day, but over a week. We’re going to savour what he’s achieved, learn the lessons, and work on all the little details that we can improve.”