The team time trial stage with that novel rule change that’s still a team time trial. How much of a lead can Jonas Vingegaard get on Tadej Pogačar today?
Remember sprint trains?: first a quick mention of Jonas Gregaard who drew the short straw and went a solo attack but got the mountains jersey for his efforts, helped by his attack on Sunday. With fewer and fewer teams actually being invited to races there’s less onus on them to provide “animation” but Uno-X duly supplied a rider to go up the road for the day, even if they had a contender for the stage in Alexander Kristoff.
Remember sprint trains, when a sprinter could hitch a ride on the back of several team mates and bid their time until the finish? Perhaps it started with the Flandria team in the 1970s, it became the way the Saeco team won in the 1990s and probably reached perfection with the HTC/Highroad team around 2009. These days teams still have lead outs and riders to guide them through the finish but no one team is able to control the race like times past. You can see it, the front of the peloton is not strung out in a line, nor even in arrow formation but often spread across the road – which can sometimes be a sign of a go-slow but obviously is quite the opposite with there’s 800m to go in a World Tour race, everyone is trying to get to the front.
Mads Pedersen got the win, helped by a lead-out into the finish from Alex Kirsch, and he just seemed the fastest in the finish and collects the yellow jersey thanks to being third on Sunday’s stage as well.
The Route: 32km around Dampierre-en-Burly, a small town close to the banks of the Loire river and dominated by France’s sixth biggest nuclear power station with its four reactors and their cooling towers which have been in the news of late, partly because of long maintenance saw them being closed just as energy prices were spiking going into winter; and also last summer when the Loire was running dry and they were wondering if the plant could return water used for cooling back to the river of whether this would make what was left in the river too hot to sustain wildlife.
Anyway the course is largely flat with 180m of vertical gain, triangular in shape and it suits big engines who can pull at 60km/h rather than teams that can plot their way around a technical course. The start and finish are at the base of the triangle, the zone north of this is woodland offering some shelter from the wind and the peak of the triangle is exposed. There seven bends and most of them can be taken at speed in the tri-bars, otherwise it’s long straight sections which often roll up and down. The hardest drag up comes with about 10km to go.
The Rules: the novelty here is the time is taken on the first rider to cross the line and each rider gets credited with the time it takes them to complete the course. 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
a team with a specialist rouleur can let them go off the front to get the stage win but if they have a GC rider as well, then they get the time they cross the line with. Therefore teams with ambitions for the overall have to guide their leaders to the best time possible
You can imagine the tactics with teams in formation for the first part of the course but the closer the finish gets, the more likely they burn up riders who can take pulls that put them into the red while towing their team that bit faster.
Artifice, a gimmick? Perhaps but so is a team time trial based on the time of the fourth rider as well. It probably won’t change too much either although it gives us something to think about on a Tuesday in March. Paris-Nice actually has a long history of innovation and rule changes, some like air transfers, prologues and the one/three kilometre rule all come from this race and are features, others like the “best descender prize” have not stuck.
The Contenders: Jumbo-Visma have picked a team with this stage in mind and the idea to get Jonas Vingegaard not just in the lead but with a cushion on his rivals including Tadej Pogačar. They have the reigning world TT champ in Tobias Foss, former world champ Rohan Dennis, the wardrobe-sized TT specialist Edoardo Affini and Jonas Vingegaard won a TT in the Gran Camino.
Ineos have a very strong team, although just imagine if they’d brought Filippo Ganna and a couple of others. Next come a sweep of teams who ought to be close but it’d still be a surprise if they won. Soudal-Quickstep. EF Education-Easypost where just pipped in the UAE Tour, although only rider in Marijn van der Berg, is here from that day. Bahrain. Bora-hansgrohe. Jayco-Al Ula.
UAE have their work cut out. Tadej Pogačar has only done one team time trial since turning pro and in the 2019 Vuelta a España his UAE team finished 21st out of 22. However this was a day when Jumbo also lost time, a leak of water on the course caused carnage. Still team management are getting the excuses in, saying they didn’t have TT bikes over the winter because of equipment shortages, a reminder that while the heritage fades, it’s still the old Lampre team at times and you can’t imagine other teams having this problem.
EF, Quickstep, Bora
Weather: cold and cloudy, 7°C and a light SW wind.
TV: the first team is off at 2.15pm CET, TV coverage starts an hour later and the last team should arrive at 4.40pm CET.