Tipped from early in his career as the man most likely to end France’s long drought at Paris-Roubaix, Arnaud Démare (FDJ) seemed to lose his way during a lacklustre 2015 campaign. Where better, then, to find his way again than on the dirt roads around Vendôme at the end of a relentless opening road stage of Paris-Nice?
After a day that saw the peloton buffeted by snow and wind, Démare managed to hang tough on a demanding finishing circuit along dirt roads designed very much with Classics contenders in mind. He then reached for the other weapon in his armoury – his rapier finishing sprint – to take the stage win ahead of Ben Swift (Sky) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis).
Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) had succeeded in slipping away from a stretched-out peloton on the descent from the final dirt road section, the Chemin du Tertre de la Motte, and he looked a likely stage winner as he led into the finishing straight. Swift opened his sprint from distance, however, and overhauled the Belgian with a shade over 200 metres to go, only for Démare to swoop by him to take an emphatic stage victory.
Démare’s sprint was all the more impressive given how much ground he made up in those final 200 metres. In a sense, it was a trip down memory lane, as the Frenchman overhauled Adrien Petit (Direct Energie) – his lead-out man when he won the under-23 Worlds in Copenhagen in 2011 – and then Bouhanni – his former FDJ teammate and eternal rival – before passing Swift to win the stage.
“This wasn’t a normal sprint and things could have worked out differently because I was badly placed,” Démare said of the confused finale. “I had to launch from sprint from a long way back. I’d decided to stick to Nacer’s wheel because he still had two teammates with him and I was lucky to come around him and then jump Swift at the end.”
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) placed fifth in the reduced bunch sprint to retain the yellow jersey of race leader, though one wonders how he might have fared had he not lost teammate Daryl Impey to a puncture in the finale, or if he had not expended so much energy in sprinting to claim two bonus seconds on the first passage through the finish line with 14 kilometres remaining.
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