The battle is underway in Paris-Nice, and the opening stage already brought a bit of tension. On Sunday, the sprinters did fight for the win in La Verrière, but that came after a hectic final part of the race. Always there in the climbs, Arnaud Démare tried to get involved in the bunch sprint, but he had to settle for tenth place on the line after entering the home stretch too far back. As for David Gaudu, he finished safely in the bunch.
As its usual nickname suggests, Paris-Nice could not begin in the sunshine this Sunday. It was under a cloudy sky that the bunch set off around 1 p.m for the first WorldTour stage race of the season in Europe. On the menu of this 81st edition’s opening stage, two loops around the town of La Verrière, with two little climbs in the last twenty kilometres to spice up the finale. In the first loop, two men quickly got into the lead to form the breakaway: Paul Ourselin (TotalEnergies) and Jonas Gregaard (Uno-X). Not threatened at all by the duo, the peloton just kept them at 2-3 minutes for most of the day. Just over sixty kilometres from the finish, the pace however started to rise, as much as the tension. “The first half of the race was rather quiet, but the second half was very nervous with teams having trouble staying together at the front,” said Philippe Mauduit. The Groupama-FDJ team brought back up their leader for GC David Gaudu a few times, notably in the wake of Stefan Küng and Kevin Geniets, while the breakaway was caught with thirty kilometres remaining.
“It’s a shame because it was certainly possible to do much better”, Arnaud Démare
The fight for positions kept on going until the approach to the short climb of Milon-la-Chapelle (500m at 11.6%). Arnaud Démare tackled it with an ideal position, and even followed the sharp attacks at the top. After the climb, only twenty men or so were left in the lead, including the former French champion, David Gaudu, Kevin Geniets and Rudy Molard. “We got over the climb very well, but it wasn’t very organized in front,” said Philippe. “There were quite a few riders who did not have their leaders with them. Therefore, we know that they will not pull, On the opposite, they will try to disrupt the organization. Some leaders were there but without teammates, and they too were not going to pull either, so it did not work out”. Rudy Molard and Kevin Geniets did take a few turns, but everything came back together four kilometres further on. The bunch then headed to the ultimate climb, la côte des dix-sept tournants (1.5 km at 4.7%), where a trio including Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard broke away. The chase was however on immediately, and the peloton entered the last two kilometres as a whole. Stefan Küng then tried to position Arnaud Démare for the sprint. “It was very difficult to set up the sprint for the guys who had to do it”, explained Philippe. “It was also quite hectic between 1500 and 700 meters. Besides, Arnaud was forced to brake because of a lead-out man who stopped his effort just in front of him. Unfortunately, that’s part of sprinting, especially on such a technical final”.
The former French champion therefore approached the final stretch beyond the first ten positions, and quite far from the head of a stretched bunch. He could not therefore take better than a tenth place on the line. “We were up there in the key moments, approaching the climbs, and I was never put in trouble for the sprint”, underlined first Arnaud. “On the other hand, I am obviously very disappointed not to have reached the goal which was to be positioned at the flamme rouge. We got boxed in when we had to come back up, and it was then difficult to make it back. It’s a shame because it was certainly possible to do much better, as the legs were eventually better than I thought. On the one hand, I think it bodes well for the rest of the week, but on the other hand, it’s a shame to sprint in the back and not fight for the first positions”. After getting his second top-10 of the season, Arnaud Démare could have a new opportunity on Monday. As for David Gaudu, he finished without any issue in the first peloton. “The main goal was not to suffer any split regarding the overall”, recalled Arnaud. “From this point of view, the day went well. “We hoped for a better result, but this stage of Paris-Nice is always very complicated and very nervous”, concluded Philippe. “It is already a good thing that we went through it without problems and without crashes. Tomorrow will also be very nervous but on a very different route. Everything will depend on the weather conditions and on which direction the wind will blow”.