Saul's Blog: " Jens [Voigt] is notorious for trying to spoil the party for the GC contenders."

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18.03.2008/  Paris-Nice is a race that gives some insight to which teams are going to be the big players in the season. It is almost guaranteed who ever wins the overall in this race, is going to be a top gun for other races like the Giro and Tour de France.

In years past Paris- Nice is a race that is unforgiving. When you start in northern France you have brutal cold temperatures, with nasty crosswinds, ice, snow, and rain. The roads are flat but relatively rolling. The further south the racers go the warmer it gets. By the time they hit Nice they have warm weather and beautiful blue skies. It is a real shock to the system to go from cold to hot weather, and then from rolling terrain to the mountains in the south.

One thing a lot of people do not realize in a race like Paris-Nice is that so early in the season, even some of the best guys will drop out because of fear of getting sick. I was always one of the guys fighting to stay well. In a race this hard and this early on in the season (not to mention the bad weather) staying healthy is half the battle. I know there is nothing I hated more than finishing a race soaking wet, tired, and then getting on the team bus trying to unthaw on the way to the hotel. At the hotel there was nothing better than a hot shower. Worst of all is trying to dry out your shoes and cleaning all your gear for the next day. There were many days that I would start the next day with wet shoes.

Coming out to play, my man and teammate, Thor Husholvd. He took home victory in the prologue. I wish I were there to drink champagne with the team. This proves Thor is in good condition. I would look for more victories to come from him this year. The first stage of this year was a typical. The race was shortened in half to 93.5 kilometers because of bad weather. 93.5k in 2 hours and 21 minutes suggest that it was a very hard day in the wind. Racing in cold, rainy, and windy weather is physically and mentally exhausting. You do not know how hard it is to jockey for position non-stop trying constantly to stay in the front. Men have to sprint into every turn just to be the first to the crosswind sections. You have to watch every single move of every guy so you do not clip a wheel or crash.

Not making any friends and having nothing to lose, Quickstep stepped up to the plate and blew the race apart. I know when I was racing when I would see a team like Quickstep come to the front it would send chills up my spine and get my adrenaline pumping. If you are not near the front nor if you have you team together that can organize to keep in the bunch, it is over. That's exactly what happened today. Quickstep did their homework, found the cross wind, and threw down a winning punch that won them the stage. The big Belgian sprinter, Gert Steegmans of Quickstep, powered to victory over Frenchman Jérôme Pineau of Bouygues Telecom. Third was my teammate, the Norwegian God, Thor Hushoved. Thor retained the race leader’s jersey.

Cold weather and rain came down upon the second stage of the race. Stages like this make you as hard as a rock. Credit Agricole, and Quickstep controlled the race all day. A very smart move because it keeps your team out of trouble and in most cases it is easer to ride the front than hang on in the back dodging obstacles. The second stage was nothing but havoc for the racers in the back of the CA and Quickstep train. The slick as ice road was a death wish for the riders that tried to get a free ride. This stage was riddled with many crashes. I know in races like this I would sometimes ride in the front even if I had no reason to. It is so much safer up there.

My team rode brilliantly (I might be a little biased), sheltering Thor for the finish. One thing sprinters are known for is their descending. Thor launched an attack on the last down hill to the finish just saying to everyone, "A field sprint at the finish is going to be dangerous, who has the guts to come with me?" Joined by Sylvain Chavanel, Stievens, Gert Steegmans, Philippe Gilbert, and Michael Albasini, it was an all out sprint for the finish. Gert Steegmans of Quickstep scored his second victory of this year’s race. He easily passed Thor and Sylvain Chavanel in the last 100 meters because of the effort Thor put out trying to escape down the hill. Thor’s attempt might have cost him the victory, but to me it was a very smart move. In the wet conditions today, why take the risk and try to take on the whole field? Better be safe than sorry. And besides, Thor still carried the yellow jersey.

In the third stage Sylvain Chavanel took yellow after racing with some on and off rain. It is obvious that the peloton is getting tired of racing in this nasty weather. The group led by Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Clément Lhôtellerie (Skil-Shimano), and Bradley McGee (Team CSC) escape only after eight kilometers of racing. Sometimes in races like this the guys battling it out for the GC or the sprints do not care to race. When someone gets off the front the leaders aren't motivated to bring him back. Today Kjell Carlström of team Liquigas profited from their laziness and won his biggest race ever.

Mont Ventoux is one of the most famous climbs in the sport of cycling. It was always my dream to race up this climb. In stage four, the big German, Jens Voigt, tried to steal the victory from the climbers, escaping after 11k. Jens is notorious for trying to spoil the party for the GC contenders.

When I say the man is strong, believe me, he is all engine. In France if someone is extremely strong they call them “Un Bet”. A “Bet” is a mountain goat that can work through anything. My teammates called me it on many occasions. Believe me when I say Jen Voigt is 100% pure “bet”. The man can go! They would not admit it, but Jens Voigt even intimidates some of the best riders. It looks like I lost my money today though; Jens got caught with only 2k to go. Cadel Evan of team Silence-Lotto rose to the top taking victory over Robert Gesink of team Rabobank. Twenty one year old Gesink took yellow today, thirty-two seconds over Davide Rebellin. My first impressions are, "Wow, that is impressive!" At twenty-one years old to get second on a major climb and to carry the yellow jersey in one of the most prestigious races in the world is amazing.

Here comes the sun. Ouch, the fifth stage was blistering fast considering the brutal condition the peloton has been fighting. It turned into a team time trial behind the breakaway of seventeen riders controlled by team Rabobank. They controlled the race with no problem. In races where the overall classification is already set there are always a lot of attacks from guys who have no chance to win the overall that hope they can still the stage. Quickstep scored its third victory after the Spaniard Carlos Barredo went on attack, after attack, after attack, masterminding every one who was in the original break. It looks like team Quickstep is trying to tell all the other teams that they are a force to be reckoned with this year.

The big question is, did Rabobank burn to many matches trying to keep the race in check? Only four guys were left chasing by the end of the stage. I know if I was racing I would be on all out attack in the remaining stages. Only 130 out of 160 started the sixth stage. It is one thing to be able to go up a mountain, but going down can sometimes be just a hard. After five days of hard racing every little effort counts. When you are wheel to wheel, on and off the breaks, by the end of each stage every bump and turn hurts. That fatigue was obvious when Robert Gesink lost contact with the lead group after braking too much in a turn. His bad judgment caused a break in the peloton just big enough for him to loose contact. Because of all the hard work from his team Rabobank in the day before he was left secluded. When you are traveling at speeds exceeding 60mph/100km if a hole opens in the group there is nothing you can do but just hold on. The lead group did just that, and rode away from the young Dutch climber ultimately costing him the yellow jersey and lead of the race. Sylvain Chavanel won a wonderful stage in the beautiful town of Cannes. Because of the big mistake from the young gun Robert Gesink, Davide Rebellin took the lead over Rinaldo Nocentini. A lead is a lead, but three seconds is not a lot of room to play with.

Luis León Sánchez won the seventh and last stage of Paris-Nice. Putting out some leg breaking attacks on the Col d’Eze and finely getting away on the downhill to the finish and taking the win. He showed everyone that he is not someone to be messed with. Sánchez moved up to fifth place overall and won the best young rider. My man, Thor Hushoved, won the points classification and Clément Lhôtellerie Skil won the mountain jersey. Davide Rebellin took home yellow. I am sure he will have a bottle of champagne in Monaco.

Paris-Nice is a race that has a place in my heart. Like me, many of the guys in this race live in the Nice area. I used to train on these same roads all the time. I know them like the back of my hand (if not better). The climbs like la Turbie, and the Col d'Eze are amazing. Take my word for it. If you have never been in the south of France you should go just to experience it. When I would ride down many of the descents if I were to look off to the right or left, it felt like I could fly. All you can see is the sea.

- Saul

Saul Raisin's next blog will be published after the Tour de Georgia.

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