French cycling enthusiasts are among those who have become experts in the art of turning back time and exploring the past. Their trips down memory lane are full of both sumptuous and painful souvenirs: Bernard Hinault was a pedalling legend but his Tour de France victory in 1985 is the last to date for any Frenchman; his win through the snow in the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège is iconic, and its status underlined even more since none of his compatriots have claimed success in the Ardent City in the following four decades.
French riders can also boast a glorious past in Paris-Nice: 21 victories in the 77 editions raced since 1933, with legendary names such as René Vietto, the Bobet brothers, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor on the winners list. But they currently face another drought in the Race to the Sun - Laurent Jalabert was the last Frenchman to win the overall classification in Nice, in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
Fortunately, a new wave of French talent has been rising through the ranks, claiming victories in the Italian Monuments (Arnaud Démare and Julian Alaphilippe in Milano-Sanremo, Thibaut Pinot with Il Lombardia) and reigniting the summer’s dreams of yellow. Paris-Nice, the sixth event scheduled on the 2020 UCI WorldTour calendar, is a new opportunity for them to prove they’re back within the elite of the peloton, 23 years after Jalabert’s last victory.
Alaphilippe-Pinot: last summer’s iconic duo is back at it
A strong cohort of French talent is coming to shine in the Race to the Sun (8-15 March). Will they find a way to victory?
“We do what’s necessary to give them the ideal route, obviously,” says race director François Lemarchand. “We’ve seen in the Tour de France that French riders are back at the top level. With this year’s route in Paris-Nice, we believe they can do it. There are lots of strong riders facing them, but we believe in them.”
Many eyes will turn to the duo who animated the 2019 Tour de France, with Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) leading the local hopes for glory. “Loulou” returns to Paris-Nice for a fourth participation in a one-week race that perfectly suits his punching abilities. He notably finished 5th overall and best young rider in 2017, with a stage victory. Alaphilippe was disappointed with his first outings of the season and he appears determined to set the records straight ahead of the spring.
For Thibaut Pinot, this participation in Paris-Nice is a first. The climber, who will turn 30 at the end of May, has avoided his compatriots’ pressure for a long part of his career but his memorable exchange with the public after his stage win atop the Tourmalet in last year’s Tour de France has shown he is more than ready.
“Apart from the sporting confrontation, these days around Nice will allow me to recon some sections of the Tour de France,” Pinot highlighted when the route was unveiled in January. “I don’t really know these roads. Col de la Colmiane for instance, where stage 7 finishes, will also be the first categorised climb of the Tour, as soon as the second day!” Pinot is also eager to fight in the wind, after he was trapped in the echelons last July.
Rehearsals ahead of the Tour
Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) will also ride to Nice for the first time in his career, having joined a UCI WorldTeam last winter. “I’m coming to Paris-Nice with confidence and ambition”, the French climber says after strong results in the Faune-Ardèche Classic (3rd) and the Royal Bernard Drome Classic (4th) last weekend. His team manager Cédric Vasseur has already established he wants to bring Martin to the Tour de France podium. “This is the first big goal of the season”, he says ahead of Paris-Nice.
Martin will ride with the support of the likes of Anthony Perez and Nicolas Edet as Cofidis aims to develop cohesion around their climber. AG2R-La Mondiale will have a similar approach around Pierre Latour, who is set to race the Tour de France as their leader for the general classification while Romain Bardet has his eyes set on other goals such as the Giro d’Italia and the Olympic Games. In his last participation in Paris-Nice, in 2017, Latour was 7th atop the Col de la Couillole, in between Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) and Ilnur Zakarin (riding for Team Katusha Alpecin at the time, now lining up for Paris-Nice with CCC Team).
As for the French Champion Warren Barguil, he’ll be eager to prove that his nasty crash last year on Stage 2 of the Race to the Sun is well behind him. Heading Arkéa-Samsic with his new partner Nairo Quintana, Barguil showed last weekend that he’s in strong shape (4th in the Faune-Ardèche Classic, 2nd in the Royal Bernard Drome Classic) ahead of his 7th participation in Paris-Nice. No doubt he will be very ambitious this week. It’s only natural for French riders as they claim back their spot in the elite of a globalised peloton.