As the sun sets on the 75th edition of Paris-Nice, Velon takes a look back at the main talking points after Sergio Henao topped the final podium by just two seconds.
No one does it as well as Contador
He may have come up two seconds short but Alberto Contador could well be better remembered for his second successive second place in Nice than Sergio Henao is for winning his own maiden stage race.
Trailing the Colombian by 31" going into the decisive final stage, Contador was always going to go on the offensive. That's how he rolls, isn't it? But the final climb of the Col d'Eze was neither long enough nor steep enough to do the requisite damage – prompting Contador to throw caution to the wind and go spectacularly early with 50 kilometres remaining.
We've seen it before on the road to Fuente Dé in the Vuelta – where Contador famously prised the red jersey from the shoulders of Joaquim Rodríguez in 2012 – and we saw it again in Spain last year in the captivating "Ambush of Formigal" that ended Chris Froome's chances. Here was yet more evidence that Contador, despite his advancing years, still has what it takes to set a bike race alight.
After yet more selfless pacing by Trek-Segafredo teammate Jarlinson Pantano, Contador launched his attack on the Côte de Peille. After briefly holding his wheel, Sky's Henao and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) were distanced – leading to a exciting game of cat-and-mouse as the Spaniard's lead first stretched beyond the time needed to seize Henao's yellow, before tumbling quite agonisingly on the final ascent.
Sure, this time it didn't pay off: by losing to David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) in the sprint for the stage, Contador missed out on four bonus seconds and ultimately lost the race by half that margin – the narrowest winning gap in Paris-Nice history. Combine that with his four-second loss to Geraint Thomas last year, and Contador's losing tallies for the past two editions are still two seconds less than Laurent Fignon's record "loss" to Greg LeMond in the closest ever Tour de France in 1989.
But – as Sean Kelly remarked on Eurosport's commentary of the race – we aren't half going to miss Contador when he retires in a couple of years' time. There's no one really quite like him in the new generation. Astonishingly, it's now seven years since the Spaniard last won a stage or the overall Paris-Nice title. This year's showing suggests that we can't rule him out ending that run before he does finally call time on his illustrious career.
In the Race to the Sun, Sky shines the brightest
All this lavish praise of Contador and it's almost easy to forget that Henao was the actual victor in Nice on Sunday, the Colombian national champion entirely deserving of our respect and admiration for his refusal to panic in the final hour of the race. Despite being virtually behind in the battle for yellow, Henao clawed his way back and did just enough to secure the first overall stage race win of his career.
Henao's Paris-Nice triumph marks the latest in a long run of success for Team Sky, who have now had four different riders stand atop the Paris-Nice podium on five occasions in the past six years. Since Germany's Tony Martin won the Race to the Sun in 2011 the only non-Sky rider to have tasted success was Colombia's Carlos Betancur in 2014 (a year when, amazingly, no Sky riders even made the top ten).
Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte (twice) and Geraint Thomas have now been joined by Henao – a rider who only made the start line thanks to the late withdrawal of Wout Poels. His career dogged by injuries and off-the-bike incidents, 29-year-old Henao took his chance – and strengthened Sky's grip on this race with aplomb.
Porte purring despite crosswind calamity
It's becoming a bit of a pattern, isn't it? In last year's Tour de France Richie Porte fell victim of bad luck in the opening week before eventually riding back into contention through a series of strong performances in the mountains. In this year's Paris-Nice, the 15 minutes conceded by the Australian in the rain and crosswinds in Stage 2 may have proved an insurmountable barrier in Porte's bid to secure a third overall crown, but the 32-year-old did enough to win the queen stage and save his BMC team's race while reminding us why he should still be one of Chris Froome's main rivals come July.
After all, take the crosswind losses out of the equation and Porte would have finished on the podium in Nice. Eleventh place overall was clearly not an accurate representation of where Porte's form is at this stage of the season. Discount him at your peril.
Alaphilippe has all the attributes to be a great
On emphatically winning the time trial to Mont Brouilly with such gusto, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) was roundly praised by all and sundry, with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme going as far as declaring we had witnessed the birth of a star.
Prudhomme: I think we've just seen the birth of a champion— Peter Cossins (@petercossins) March 8, 2017
Having come close to winning the opening stage – only to be denied by compatriot Arnaud Démare at the death – Alaphilippe did finally open up his WorldTour stage account two days later by demolishing an already superb time set by Contador in the 14.5km time trial.
Throughout the race Alaphilippe showed himself capable of getting on the right side of splits in the peloton, and when put under pressure in Stage 5 to Fayence he duly managed to extend his lead in the yellow jersey. Ultimately, the highest finish in Paris-Nice history – Saturday's finale on the Col de la Couillole – proved too much for a rider who is anything but an out-and-out climber.
But the fact that the 24-year-old held his own to secure a top-five finish in Nice suggests that one day, with perhaps a less mountainous finale to the race, Alaphilippe could well end the host nation's long wait for a first French winner of Paris-Nice since Laurent Jalabert in 1997. His performances have also convinced Quick-Step Floors to prepare Alaphilippe for a maiden appearance in Milan-Sanremo next weekend.
Deadly Démare a favourite for Milan-Sanremo
If last year no-one expected to see Frenchman Arnaud Démare top the Milan-Sanremo podium then the same can not be said 12 months later. Démare's ability to keep up with Alaphilippe in the decisive Poggio-esque climb in Stage 1 before out-sprinting his rival in the finale suggests that the FDJ rider is in good shape to defend his monumental crown on Saturday.
Démare was consistently up there in the sprints and frequently got the better of his fellow former Milan-Sanremo winners – John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) – not to mention the likes of Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and the largely anonymous Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors). Among the other sprint winners in Paris-Nice – Italy's Sonny Colbrelli, Ireland's Sam Bennett and Germany's André Greipel – Démare looks the best equipped to deal with the hefty parcours.
In short: there's no way Démare will be going under the Milan-Sanremo radar in 2017.
Cofidis need a back-up plan to Bouhanni
While Nacer Bouhanni didn't have the worst week when it comes to French riders – that poisoned chalice goes to Romain Bardet of Ag2R-La Mondiale, who was disqualified on day one for gaining an unfair advantages from his team car – it was hardly a bed of roses for the combative sprinter still in search of a maiden win for the season.
Hampered by crosswinds and the rain in the opening two stages, Bouhanni quit the race before it even got started – and once again, a Cofidis team built entirely around the 26-year-old sprinter was thrown into disarray. It was a similar situation to last year's Tour de France, from which Bouhanni was forced to withdraw on the eve of the race to leave his team without their raison d'être.
It's one thing spreading yourself too thin, but it's another relying entirely on a condiment that all too often goes missing. On his day, Bouhanni is clearly one of the biggest sprinting talents in the peloton. But he needs to be there to have any say.