La Verrière > La Verrière 169.3km
The opening stage of the race falls into the “interesting” category. There’s a wall climb with 20km to go, and a little kicker with just 7km to go, which has 6, 4 and 2 seconds for the first three over the crest. In a race where bonus seconds could play a big role, the organisers are hoping to tease out an attack from some of the GC men. It’s a stage the sprinters will hope to win, but there is hope that a late attack could take the day.
Grey. There could be a little rain, but not much, and there’s hardly any wind.
Here’s the wall climb that comes with 20km to go. For me, it’s all about the fight to lead the bunch for the entrance, which is narrow. If sprint teams control, they’ll knock off the pace and ensure an easy ride up the wall, the climb is fairly narrow. The run into the climb is downhill, fast, and twisty. GC teams and sprint teams will fight for control, hopefully everyone stays safe.
This is the little kicker with 7km to go. Again, the fight to control the bunch will be on, this time round I’d expect the GC teams to be in control. With 6 seconds bonus at the top, we could see Pogačar interested, which will naturally push the pace on. Once over the top, riders will look at each other and decide if they want to continue with the move, the sprint teams will hope the answer is no.
A light headwind as the riders head for the finish, and a couple of corners in the final kilometre to help maintain some order in the bunch.
Some will focus on the wall climb, I think that would be a mistake. It might contain some very steep gradients, but it’s only 600m in length. As I’ve explained, the sprint teams will likely lead the bunch into it, then knock off the pace. The stage is all about the final kicker and what happens over the top of it.
1.4km at 4.9% wouldn’t normally scare any of the sprinters, but when the GC teams sprint up it, some of the fast men will slide down the bunch and find themselves having to make up a lot of ground in the final 6km. The good news is 6km is long enough to comfortably get from the back to the front of the bunch, but it depends on what’s going on off the front. If a strong group of 3 or 4 riders get away, they’ve got a chance of getting the win as it will take a minute or two for the sprint teams to organise the chase. However, if a sprint team gets someone in this move, they can refuse to work and disrupt the cohesion, that’s what I’d be trying to do.
Tim Merlier – recent form has shown he’s the fastest rider in this bunch, and he arrives with a strong team to support him. This is a great opportunity for Merlier to take a stage win, and the yellow jersey. He won the opening stage in both Oman and UAE; he starts as my favourite for the win.
Arnaud De Lie – he’s the bookies favourite to take the win, and I understand why. De Lie climbs very well, he should be able to stay close to the front of the bunch on the final kicker, setting him up for the sprint finish. The problem could be his lead out in the final kilometres, Jasper De Buyst is missing after crashing in Omloop. It means that De Lie teams up with Guarnieri for the first time.
Mads Pedersen – on paper, this is an excellent stage for him. As he gets older, his climbing continues to improve, the hills in this stage aren’t going to trouble him. This is a race he’s impressed in over the last couple of years, he’ll come here expecting to win a stage.
Olav Kooij – the young Dutch sprinter is another who climbers well for a fast man, he’ll be in the mix come the end. He’s already got a world tour win in the bag from last year, but winning a stage of a race like Paris-Nice would be a huge moment in his career. The bad news for him is the late withdrawal of Christophe Laporte, it leaves him without a lead out man.
Sam Bennett – of all the sprinters, he’s the one who might suffer a little on the final climb, but I think he makes the finish. With van Poppel to lead out, Sam has every chance of sprinting for the win, but it depends on how much the two climbs take out of his legs.
Arnaud Démare – don’t write this guy off, he loves this race. He went to the UAE Tour after having COVID, it was no surprise that he didn’t compete for a win. What I did notice was his effort on Jebel Hafeet. While most sprinters sat up and took it easy, Démare continued on and finished 56th, 6:44 behind Adam Yates. While that might not scream amazing form, it does show that he wanted to test himself ahead of this race. He’s not won a stage here since 2018, can he turn back the clock?
Søren Kragh – the type of rider who can attack over the crest of the final hill and hold off a chasing bunch.
Rémi Cavagna – depends on whether QuickStep go all in for Merlier. If he gets a gap in the final 5km, good luck catching him.
Matteo Jorgenson – another who could attack over the top of the final climb. Let whoever wants to sprint for the seconds use up their energy, then go over the top. Easy!
It really is a fascinating finish, it’s all to do with how quickly the sprint teams get organised over the top of the final kicker, and who’s got a gap.
I’ll take a sprint win for Tim Merlier; he’s been loving these opening stages recently.