Make way Valverde, here’s Luis León

Amongst the plethora of classic victories and Tour de France green jerseys, one of the most remarkable achievements on the palmarés of Seán Kelly is that he won Paris-Nice seven times in a row between the 1982 and 1988. While commentating on this year’s edition of the race yesterday for Eurosport, Kelly admitted that only for the first two years of the seven was he actually treating the week-long stage race as a season goal. For his remaining victories he said his form was simply a by-product of his preparation for his major season goal, the spring classics. He even went as far as admitting that some of his overall wins were down to luck in getting into the right breakaway at the right time. The Irishman as humble as ever is probably doing himself a disservice. To win one edition of the Race to the Sun by sniffing out the right break could be consigned as luck, but seven?

I mentioned in a previous article that Paris-Nice isn’t really treated as a particular season goal for riders anymore. There are more important events on the calendar, the Grand Tours, the spring classics, the World Championships. In Kelly’s day plenty of riders attempted to stay at a high level right throughout the season, this is not the done thing anymore as riders nowadays tend to have one or two specific goals throughout the season. In my head I have a way of visualising the season form of a rider from twenty years ago versus the season form of a rider in the current peloton. As a computer scientist, this visualisation comes in the form of a graph, and using my immense computer scientist skills I have drawn this graph on a piece of paper and taken a picture of it:

The form of two riders throughout a season, red indicates the form of a rider with a specific season goal, black indicates a rider who attempts to be competitive across an entire season.

A rider trying to maintain a high level of form right through an entire season will never be able to compete at a race which is the single goal of another racer’s year. When the season long rider comes up against riders who are at a trough in their training rather than a peak, there will always be plenty of riders who will be at a peak. So a rider who aims to be competitive right throughout the season in this day and age will always be in better shape than some riders but will never be in better shape than all riders, making winning races near impossible.

However, I think that Paris-Nice comes at a stage in the season when nobody has hit, or has aimed to hit top form just yet. So the form of plenty of the favourites may be similarly average. But it is such an important race that riders who are not on top form will still do their utmost to try and take the victory in a race which is currently being raced for the 68th time. One of the riders aiming to win this race is Luis Léon Sánchez, the reigning champion. He is a rider who’s attitude toward team leadership is somewhat baffling.

Sánchez is a good strong stage race rider who as well as Paris-Nice has also won the Tour Down Under, the Tour Mediterranéen, the Vuelta a Mallorca as well as a couple of Tour de France stages and the Spanish Time Trial Championship. Sánchez rides for Caisse d’Epargne which last year contained the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez, Oscar Pereiro, Alejandro Valverde and Sánchez himself all vying for team leadership. When news  broke that Valverde would be unable to compete at last year’s Tour de France one would be inclined to think that Sánchez would have taken this opportunity to seize team leadership and aim for a high G.C. placing. But Sánchez was rather sheepish in his response to this news, instead vowing to ride for Oscar Pereiro. Although Pereiro had won the Tour in 2006, he has done precious little since and seems to have even less ambition than Sanchez, this not helped by a nasty fall in the 2008 Tour which resulted in a drastic lack of form which had him considering retirement over the winter.

Sánchez won Stage 8 of last year’s Tour which was coincidentally the day that Pereiro decided to abandon the race leaving Sánchez as team leader. He was just over two minutes behind Rinaldo Nocentini on G.C. at this stage but he never capitalised on having the whole team at his disposal and ended up over 40 minutes behind Contador by the time they reached Paris. Did Sánchez buckle under the pressure of being team leader for the Tour? Having heard some of his comments about this year’s Paris-Nice I would be inclined to think that the pressure did indeed get to him. He said at the start of February this year that he would not race Paris-Nice and would ride Tirreno-Adriatico instead primarily to avoid the pressure that comes with being the defending champion.

This is not exactly fighting talk from Sánchez who is such a classy rider on the bike. He has shown he can climb and he can also time trial, in fact he beat Contador to win the Stage 5 time trial at the Volta ao Algarve earlier this season. He has all the physical attributes that make a good Tour rider and at only 26 he also has time on his side. Two of the biggest names on his team Pereiro and Rodriguez have moved on to new teams in the off season which just leaves himself and Valverde fighting for Tour leadership. With Valverde’s Italian ban possibly being extended worldwide before the end of this month, Sánchez could find himself as sole Tour de France leader again. He has shown himself at the front of the race already this week and is positioned nicely for an assault on the overall. Winning Paris-Nice is one thing, but winning the Tour de France is another, as I’m sure Seán Kelly would testify. Perhaps an investment in a sports psychologist would work wonders for the Spaniard, golfers swear by them. To make the step up, Sánchez clearly has some mental barriers to overcome as there doesn’t seem to be anything physical which would stop him from giving the Tour de France a real go.

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