The Red Line: Paris Nice – Ned Boulting
March 14, 2021
Damn the wind. Damn Covid. For a week, since I am not actually at the race, but have been commentating remotely from London, I have been riding to work by bike, from Lewisham (in the south east) to Ealing (in the west). This has necessitated a daily battle, played out over some 25 kilometres, with a headwind from the WNW, directly aligned into my face. Bobbing like a very slow version of Bauke Mollema, I have arrived at work morally and physically punctured almost every single day.
Where that bastard wind was really needed was at Paris Nice, not in Ealing. The only time it really blew, the race had already left the usual territory which forces echelons and reached the Rhône. There it decided to turn into a headwind, which simply meant that I was an hour later getting home, as the breakaway-free peloton were travelling 10 km/h slower than they might normally.
Still, it gave me time to think about the nature of the Rhône valley and to consider its geological properties inasmuch they affect the outcome of bike races. It is a rift valley; formed not by the meandering of a river, but by the dropping of geological plates. The river only comes later, hence the straight lines. It’s often windy there, but if the race route follows the valley (N-S or S-N) then its either a tail wind or a headwind, neither of which are conducive to great bike racing. And that, my friends, is boring.
To be honest, and despite the stellar sprinters’ field represented (all of the big names save for Caleb Ewan), Paris Nice’s Italian cousin Tirreno Adriatico stole the limelight by a few thousand lumens. This is not always the case, of course. The two races often vie one another for the quality of their startlist, but not in 2021: Tirreno Adriatico was almost like a Tour de France line-up minus the sprinters…
…and minus Primož Roglič.
He is almost the very definition of modern racing, searingly effective over almost all terrains, unanswerable in many ways. A towering figure, seemingly in absolute control. Until he isn’t.
Like with Geraint Thomas, bad luck dogs Roglič with a frequency that almost looks like a pattern. His reliability of performance is legendary (he has either led, or won every single stage race he’s entered over the last three years), but the last minute drama is also a hallmark of the Roglič years. It’s cost him the Giro, the Dauphiné, the Tour de France, almost last year’s Vuelta, and now Paris Nice. Just when you think it’s all going to work out, Roglič accidentally reminds you that it’s bloody hard to win a bike race.
So, today, while Pog was hunting down in MVDP in a total thriller in Italy, Rog was contriving to lose another stage race in weird and invisible ways.
I was struck by how uncertain Max Schachmann was about the legitimacy of his win. The grey line of ethics in the peloton is blurry at the best of times. But, in my view, the consequences for the sport as entertainment had Bora Hansgrohe waited for Roglič today would have been poor. It’s a race. Staying upright is part of it, just as changing gear effectively is too. Contador was right to attack Schleck in 2010, and the media were wrong to demand an apology from him. Schachmann was right to move against Roglič in 2021. And the Slovenian was extremely gracious in defeat, with not a word of criticism levelled at the Schachmann; only an admission of “mistakes” on his part.
Cycling won today, even if Paris Nice lost emphatically to its Italian rival. But don’t worry: It’ll be back and so will the wind.