Stat Attack: Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Tour de France – we’ve been tricked

The trend of Tour de France winners taking victory in these early-season races is only a recent phenomenon, Cillian Kelly explains

Clock17:15, Wednesday 28th February 2024
In recent years, the Tour de France winner has often graced the podium in either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico

© Getty Images

In recent years, the Tour de France winner has often graced the podium in either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico

You can keep your Tour Down Under and your Etoile de Bessèges, you can have your Volta ao Algarve and your AlUla Tour. This is where the season really begins and the pre-season training ends. Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico both get underway next week and this is what it’s all about isn’t it? Isn’t it?!

Well, it’s definitely the last point in the season where anyone can say ‘this is when the season really begins’, which must count for something.

It’s where we expect to see the Tour de France contenders emerge from their winter slumbers, climb down from their altitude perches and start each of their own personal journeys towards Tour glory. And because Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico overlap on the calendar, it has become an annual point of interest to find out which Tour contender will ride which race.

Of the ‘big four’, we’ve been promised that Primož Roglič and Remco Evenepoel will be at Paris-Nice (Evenepoel’s first ever stage race in France) and Jonas Vingegaard will be racing Tirreno-Adriatico. Tadej Pogačar is busy ripping up the rule book and holding his stage race horses until later as he eyes up the Giro/Tour double, so he’ll be racing Strade Bianche this weekend instead.

Read more: Stat Attack: The history Primož Roglič must defy to win the Tour de France

In the past six years (let’s ignore 2020 because the calendar was all over the place and the usual rhythm of the season was ruined. There are three main scourges of the cycling statistician - dopers and their stripped victories, Andrei Tchmil and his several nationalities, and Covid-19 for upturning the entire 2020 season) the eventual Tour winner has finished on the podium of either of these two Spring stage races every time:

  • 2023 - Jonas Vingegaard - 3rd at Paris-Nice
  • 2022 - Jonas Vingegaard - 2nd at Tirreno-Adriatico
  • 2021 - Tadej Pogacar - 1st at Tirreno-Adriatico
  • 2019 - Egan Bernal - 1st at Paris-Nice
  • 2018 - Geraint Thomas - 3rd at Tirreno-Adriatico

So chances are that we will see this year’s Tour de France winner on the podium of one of these races by the end of next week. Right? Wrong… and not just because Pogačar won’t be racing either.

This is a trick. These riders have conspired to trick us that this is usually the case, and it isn’t. If we expand our look back through the history books beyond 2018 and consider the last 40 years, in just 11 of those years the Tour winner finished top three in Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, and that includes the five listed above.

The Tour winner didn’t even start either of these two races in 16 of those years, the alternatives being races like the Herald Sun Tour, Volta a Catalunya or the Circuit de la Sarthe or in some cases just not starting their season until April.

The most recent dynastic Tour winners have almost completely ignored these races. Of Chris Froome’s four Tour-winning years he only took part once – that was Tirreno-Adriatico in 2013, where he was one of those 11 Tour winners who nabbed a podium, finishing second behind Vincenzo Nibali.

And Lance Armstrong (yes yes, caveats and asterisks galore, here, you can have seven of them, * * * * * * *) only took part twice, Paris-Nice both times, where he finished a lowly 61st in 1999 and abandoned in 2005, which means he is the last rider to DNF one of these two races and go on to win the Tour in the same year.

Read more: Stat Attack: Does pro cycling really need saving?

Before Froome, the previous rider not to bother with either race before winning the Tour was Carlos Sastre in 2008. He opted for the Tour of Murcia instead, which he didn’t win. And the reason I know that and I didn’t even have to look it up is that, rather incredibly, the 2008 Tour de France is the only stage race that Sastre ever won in his career (to be fair to Sastre, it was a career hampered by being a teammate of Dan Lloyd for two years).

And that, quite unfathomably, is also true of Andy Schleck. He won the Tour in 2010, his only stage race win. Although, unlike Sastre, he did manage to get around Tirreno-Adriatico beforehand, albeit in a lowly 83rd. That isn’t quite the worst result for Tour winners in these races in the past 40 years. That honour belongs to Bjarne Riis who managed 87th at Paris-Nice in 1996, although he was probably only riding at 60% capacity at that time of year.

The point of dredging up all these peculiar data points is to illustrate that the Tour contenders these days are not messing about. Riders did used to take things easy in the early season, building form slowly but surely as they approached July. Not anymore. The form is built. The racing is on.

Even though I started by saying that we’ve been tricked and the longer historical context might indicate otherwise, the fact is that they have tricked us but it’s not an illusion. These guys have changed the status quo and consigned Froome and Armstrong’s playbooks to the dustbin of decades past. If this year’s eventual Tour de France winner doesn’t finish on the podium of Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico in the next couple of weeks it will certainly be bucking the trend of recent years. That’s with the exception of Pogačar of course. Because Pog is Pog.

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