Wind played havoc Sunday afternoon, blowing the race to pieces and creating some big gaps in the overall classification.
A brutally tough day of racing unfolded at Paris-Nice, with the crosswinds ripping the peloton apart more than 90 kilometers away from the finish and forcing a big selection which saw many of the pre-race favourites lose ground. Quick-Step Floors didn't miss this key move of the race and was well represented, as the team led from the car by Brian Holm and Tom Steels placed six riders in the 29-man front group: Julian Alaphilippe, Jack Bauer, Philippe Gilbert, Marcel Kittel, Yves Lampaert and Daniel Martin.
The sextet were the motor of that group, driving it on the 74km-long loop around Bois-d'Arcy and making sure the chasers, which included Romain Bardet (AG2R), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Richie Porte (BMC), won't see them again until the end of the stage. In what will go down as one of the best stages in Paris-Nice history, Quick-Step Floors – a three-time World TTT Champion – put in a very impressive display of collective strength, pushing the pedal to the metal and taking the gap north of one minute inside the final 30 kilometers, while at the same time keeping its captains sheltered.
As the group continued to shrink, also the advantage of the leaders began to come down, and FDJ moved to the front inside the last three kilometers, dropping both Marcel Kittel and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) just before that unclassified climb in the final kilometer, which had a 5% average gradient.
Julian Alaphilippe, who came to Paris-Nice after showing a good form in last week's Abu Dhabi Tour, where he won the white jersey, was brought to the front by Belgian Champion Philippe Gilbert just before the climb and unleashed a powerful acceleration under the flamme rouge, as the road began to rise. The 24-year-old Frenchman took 20 meters on the chasers, but was countered by countryman Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who made the catch with 700 meters to go and won the sprint, despite Julian giving it his all on the run-in to the line in Bois-d'Arcy.
"I am satisfied after this hard day which we rode full gas from the start. We had many guys at the front, they all did a great job and I am proud of them. I did my best on the climb, but Arnaud was the strongest in the sprint. I have no regrets, because the upcoming week will bring other opportunities", said Julian Alaphilippe, who took the first white jersey of the race at the finish, where he was congratulated by his family.
Two other of the squad's riders – Philippe Gilbert (4th), who won the day's last intermediate sprint, and Daniel Martin (6th) – finished in the top 10, their results and the one of Julian taking Quick-Step Floors at the top of the team standings.
The team's showing, incredible amount of work at the front of the main group and results pleased sport director Brian Holm at the end of the day: "We knew since yesterday that the stage will be a grueling one, so we were expecting to see the peloton blown to pieces by the wind. It reminded me of the 2015 Gent-Wevelgem. Everybody was nervous, especially as there was a strong chance that some riders will lose the GC today. We were committed to pulling from the first lap and we did just that. We didn't win, but we can be happy with the way things panned out, as we did a perfect race."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele