The season starts now…………….

In my mind the cycling season starts with Paris-Nice. Now, I know the professional peloton has already been racing all over the globe: Australia, Argentina, Colombia, Oman, UAE, Spain, France  and Italy. I’ve even watched the last stage of the Tour de la Provence, a sprint won by John Degenkolb into Aix-en-Provence. But, for me, Paris-Nice remains the curtain-raiser!

Amael Moinrad wins: that’ll do nicely!

I’ve watched this race every year since relocating to France, largely of course because it finishes in my back garden. Some years I’ve watched the last three or even four stages but this year, like many, it’ll be the last two stages in and around Nice. I shall be praying for fine weather so that it is a “Race to the Sun” and hoping that I might see one of our local riders win a stage. I was fortunate to see Amael Moinard win the last stage in 2010 and Rudy Molard win the sixth stage to Vence last year.

Rudy triumphs in Vence

Like many French races, it has a rich history. It was created in 1933 by Parisian Albert Lejeune, in order to promote his Paris-based newspaper Le Petit Journal and Nice-based paper Le Petit Nice. Hence, the race linked the French capital with the fashionable Mediterranean coast. It was held in March, at the end of winter, one of the earliest French bike races on the calendar, immediately following the end of the track season.

The first Paris–Nice comprised six stages and was promoted as Les Six Jours de la Route. The first stage from Paris to Dijon was a whopping 312 km, and it remains the longest stage in the history of Paris–Nice. Because most mountain roads were still impassable, because of its early calendar date, the race’s route avoided the Alps and primarily followed the lower Rhône valley, its only significant climbs were on the last day on the outskirts of Nice.

The race was a success and other newspapers partnered with Lejeune’s titles to co-sponsor the race. In 1940, the race was cancelled for the duration of WWII. In 1946 Ce Soir again organised the first post-war race, but although the event was a commercial success, the newspaper dropped its sponsorship and the race was discontinued between 1947 and 1950.

In 1951 the race was revived as Paris-Côte d’Azur by Jean Medecin, the allegedly shady mayor of Nice, who wanted to promote tourism to his fast-growing city and the entire Côte d’Azur. The race’s name Paris–Nice was restored in 1954 and it grew in status in the 1950s from an early-season preparation and training race to an event in its own right, spawning such illustrious winners as Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil. In 1957 journalist Jean Leulliot, race director since 1951, bought the event with his company Monde Six and became Paris–Nice’s new organiser.

In 1959 the race was run as Paris–Nice–Rome, with a separate classification from Paris to Nice with a second one from Nice to Rome and a third title for the overall. The excessive length of the race – 1,955 kilometres (1,215 miles) in 11 days – was criticised, and the formula has not been repeated. In 1966 Paris–Nice was the scene of a rivalry between French cycling icons Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, whose legendary battles divided French cycling fans for over a decade.

Eze Village

In 1969, the final stage was moved from the seaside promenade in Nice to the top of Col d’Eze, overlooking the city. Eddy Merckx won the final individual time-trial and his first of three consecutive Paris–Nice races. In 1972 eternal second Poulidor ended the Cannibal’s streak by winning the final time-trial and narrowly finishing ahead of Merckx. The following year, he repeated this feat at the grand old age of 37.

In the 1980s Ireland’s polyvalent Sean Kelly won the race seven consecutive times; the winning record to date. The Race to the Sun produced several well-known winners in the 1990s, notably Spanish Grand Tour specialist Miguel Indurain. French all-rounder Laurent Jalabert won the race three consecutive times, the final time in 1997, and remains the race’s last French winner. In 2000, former Tour winner Laurent Fignon took over the organisation of the race from the Leulliot family but he sold out to ASO in 2002.

Roche, Iglinskiy and Mizurov in front of poster of Andrei Kivilev
Roche, Iglinskiy and Mizurov in front of poster of Andrei Kivilev

The 2003 race was marred by the death of Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev after a crash on the second stage. Kivilev did not wear a helmet and died that night as a result of brain trauma. The following day the peloton, led by Kivilev’s Cofidis team, neutralised the third stage. Racing resumed the next day and, on the fifth stage to Mont Faron, Kivilev’s friend and compatriot Alexander Vinokourov soloed across the line holding a picture of his late friend. My former cycling club holds a sportive each year in June in Kivilev’s memory.

In 2005 Paris–Nice was included in the inaugural UCI Pro Tour, but was at the centre of a dispute between UCI and ASO just before its 2008 edition. (This was where I made my one-woman stand against the exclusion of Astana from the 2008 Tour de France.) The issue was eventually resolved and since 2011 Paris–Nice has served as the European WorldTour opener.

My beloved enjoying Paris-Nice 2012 with friends

The 2012 edition was famously won by Bradley Wiggins on his way to becoming the first Brit to win the Tour de France thereby giving me bragging rights down at the cycling club. Subsequently, it’s been won by key support riders for Tour contenders (incl: Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and Marc Soler). I wonder who’ll win this year’s edition?

 

Postcard from Como

One of the many advantages of living on the Cote d’Azur is its proximity to Italy and La Dolce Vita. We watched Il Lombardia for the first time last year which afforded us an opportunity to make our maiden visit to Bergamo. This year, the course was reversed and the race started in Como and finished in Bergamo. The ideal opportunity for a quick trip to Como to see the last WorldTour race of the season and one of my favourite Monuments. We set off early on Friday morning, eating breakfast en route. Or I should  say that my beloved breakfasted while I watched enviously. Sadly, I’m still forbidden coffee and pastry cream filled croissants! The sun shone and the first part of the drive along the coast is glorious. As soon as we turned left before Genoa, the clouds put in an appearance. One reason to never live anywhere other than on the coast.

lombardia-lake

We arrived in time for lunch on the lake. Sadly, it was a tad overcast but that didn’t lessen the pleasure of eating spaghetti vongole (clams). The afternoon I spent reacquainting myself with the old town. Many moons ago, I would visit Milan regularly on business and usually spend a week-end in Como, just 30 minutes away by train. However, this was a first for my beloved as we’d not really looked around much last year when the race concluded in Como. There’s plenty of cafes and restaurants, an eclectic mix of shops plus plenty of buildings of architectural interest.

My beloved always likes to check out the price of property in the local estate agencies. While, I like to lust over a spot of property porn where the price is rarely given. Of course, any view of the lake just multiplies the price by a significant factor.

We stayed in a small hotel, right in the centre of town. It was housed in an old building which had been sensitively renovated, pleasingly mixing the old with the new. The WiFi worked, the rooms were light and spacious and the bed comfortable. The polished concrete floors and slate staircase looked good but, as we were later to discover, magnified every sound. Sadly, soundproofing between the rooms had been omitted which meany even heavy sleepers like me were in for a rude awakening. That was the only blot on a lovely week-end.

Neither of us felt particularly hungry at dinner time so we cruised a few of the bars which all have small serve yourself buffet tables of olives, grilled vegetables, pasta salad, pizza, focaccia etc to accompany their drinks, meaning we had no real need for dinner.

The sign-on for Il Lombardia took place less than 100 metres from out hotel meaning we rolled out of bed, grabbed breakfast and pitched up for a ringside seat. For many this was their last or nearly last race of the season but they were in for a long day in the saddle as the course had been reworked to include over 4,000 metres of climbing, much of it in the latter part of the race. It had rained heavily overnight and while still overcast, it was drying out as the riders departed from in front of the cathedral for their parade around the town.

lombardia-cathedral

As the crowds started to disperse, a handful of riders were racing to catch up.

lombardia-wait

Obviously, they didn’t get the memo about the time of the race start or, if they did, they hadn’t read it. These included the eventual victor Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange). It’s thirsty work watching racing, so we retired to a nearby café for fortification.

Rather than drive over to Bergamo to watch the race’s conclusion, we had arranged to meet friends for lunch at a local seafood restaurant for oysters and lobster – allowed under my regime. Dessert was a vegan ice cream from the shop next door to our hotel. It’s rare I can indulge in any dessert, let alone ice cream and I feel I showed great restraint by only darkening the shop’s door just the one time. After a disturbed night’s sleep, we had a power nap before watching the race conclusion on the television.

The route is surprisingly undulating, even alongside the lake, as the road frequently rises and falls around the surrounding hills. My beloved and I have frequently ridden around here but not this time. Having seen the forecast, we left the bikes at home. Luckily for the peloton, the rain only fell in the final kilometres of the race. Many had taken advantage of the short-cut back to Bergamo once their work for the day was done. Only a handful of riders finished the course which had been animated by two riders we know well – BMC’s Damiano Caruso and Cofidis’ Rudy Molard. We’d been enthusiastically cheering them on but sadly their early break didn’t succeed.

It was a later one which took the glory. It was a thrilling and fitting conclusion to the 2016 WorldTour season which saw Movistar finish top team for the fourth consecutive season and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) claim the UCI top rider spot. He’s had a fantastic season, dispelling the myth of the curse of the rainbow jersey which I’d love to see him retain next week in Doha.

Again, after that sumptuous lunch, it was drinks and nibbles with friends from the cycling world that evening where we enthusiastically discussed the many merits of the day’s race. A great way to pass an evening.

We were again woken up several times in the night by the other hotel guests returning to base. Consequently, we rose early and headed home where we knew warm sunshine awaited and we could go for a spin on our bikes. Lunch and dinner were courtesy of a superb delicatessen in Como. So we spent a relaxing day though opted for an early night to catch up on those lost hours of sleep.