Cycling - Poor, poor Paris-Nice

Right when things couldn’t get any worse for the iconic stage race known affectionately in cycling lexicon as the ‘Race to the Sun’, it did, writes Aaron S. Lee.

Cycling - Poor, poor Paris-Nice

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Team Sky's Richie Porte (AFP)

The 162.5km crash-marred opening stage - perhaps the riders were too ‘daring’ as to ASO’s wishes - including a massive spill just 20 kilometres from the finish that left many of the favourites stranded, including Roman Bardet (Ag2R), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and both Andy and Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), contained plenty of chaos with eventual stage winner Nacer Bouhanni ( hitting the deck at one point as well.

However the biggest casualty on the day was Cadel Evans’ heir apparent, Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who was forced to retire from the race with illness.

Unfortunately this is not were the problems began.

From the moment the race revealed a course without time trials or uphill finishes, many of the WorldTour elite opted for ‘the race between the two seas’ instead. The 2014 Tirreno-Adriatico offers everything this year’s Paris-Nice does not – including both a team- and individual time trial, as well as two arduous mountain stages.

It was bad enough that marquee names like Evans, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Robert Gesink (Belkin), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) took a pass on Paris, but when your defending champion bails, it’s salt in the wound.

Even TT-focused Sir Bradley Wiggins (Sky), who bailed on Strade Bianche on Sunday, looks forward to having a crack on the first and last stages of Tirreno instead.

In less than 24 hours from this very column waxing lyrical over Richie Porte’s imminent defence of his Paris-Nice crown, Team Sky did the unthinkable – or so it initially seemed – and pulled Porte just 48 hours prior to stage one in order to replace an injured Chris Froome at Tirreno just three days after the start of 72nd edition of Paris-Nice – ouch!

Sky’s apparent ‘bait and switch’ immediately raised the ire of race director Christian Prudhomme of the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the organisers of Paris-Nice, and its more famous siblings – Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France.

An angry Prudhomme lambasted Sky’s decision to extract the defending champion so close to the start of the race as a “cavalier move” in citing the team’s claims of Tirreno’s more favourable parcours and increased odds of obtaining WorldTour points.

"I totally understand the remarks from the ASO," Porte said on Sunday from his European base in Monte Carlo. "Paris-Nice is an historic race and very important to the ASO, and also it's very important to me too, as it was the first big race I won in my career.

"I don’t think they should see it as a sign of disrespect. I guess sometimes people have to make hard decisions and that’s what we did."

Even Eurosport race commentator and Paris-Nice’s most successful rider Sean Kelly agrees with Porte but clearly understands both sides of the story.

On a phone interview just 30-minutes prior to the start of stage two in Rambouillet, the seven-time race winner told Southern Spin: “It’s obviously very disappointing for both the ASO and for fans of the race. But this is professional cycling and these things happen. Both Richie and Sky made a call that was best for both he and the team. As a team director for [An Post Chain Reaction Sean Kelly] I can understand the strategies behind such decisions.”

Porte’s decision to bolt from the ‘sun’ to the ‘sea’ leaves a void to be filled by Geraint Thomas who Porte claims will “do fine”.

However Paris’ loss is Australia’s… err, Tirreno’s gain.

Tirreno sets the stage between the Italian coasts of Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic for the third showdown of the year between Porte and compatriot Evans. The two are ultimately set on a collision course for this year’s Giro d’Italia. The much-anticipated matchup in May will be Porte’s first GC bid and perhaps 37-year-old Evans’ swan song in a race he surprisingly finished third in last year after 18 months of sub-standard form by Evans’ standards due to illness.

The idea of Porte, 29, coming of age at the Giro or Evans, who was subtly put out to pasture for this year’s Tour by BMC, standing atop the podium in a country where he enjoys such rich history is enough to make a parched continent’s mouth water.

But for now a nation braces for ‘Porte vs Evans III’ with the first two rounds going to the veteran 2011 Tour winner and former world champion. Porte narrowly fell to Evans – and race winner Gerrans – at the Australian Road National Championships in January for the best 1-2-3 finish in race history.

One week later, Porte and Evans traded blows with individual stage wins atop the Tour Down Under’s most iconic climbs, with Evans taking stage three over the Corkscrew and Porte capturing the queen stage atop Willunga. While his ride was full of panache, it ultimately failed to land the Tasmanian a spot on the podium.

So Tirreno just became a lot more interesting – especially for folks in the Southern Hemisphere. Can Porte, who finished second at Ruta Del Sol in February, improve his early season form and finally take one from his rival? Or will the old lion continue to fend off the ever-emerging threat in Porte? Either way, both can expect a fight in Tirreno come early Thursday morning (LIVE 12.30am Thursday, 13th March on Eurosport) .

As for Paris-Nice, all is certainly not lost as the eight-stage race runs until March 16th with Vincenzo Nibali, Carlos Betancur, Sébastien Chavanel ( and 2013 Tour Down Under winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) among the favourites.

It is a good week to be cycling fan.

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