Paris-Nice: Call It A Comeback, But…

On Sunday, Bobby Julich (CSC) became the first American to take the overall title in Paris-Nice. His victory will likely be heralded with glossy print and cover shots as the biggest achievement yet of his much-reported “rebirth” under CSC mastermind Bjarne Riis.

In part, that representation is true— Paris-Nice is a pretty big prize to have on your palmares, and builds nicely on the momentum he established last season, when he took third at Paris-Nice and bronze in the Olympic time trial after years in the doldrums with Telekom and Cofidis.

But when I think of someone having a rebirth, I think of them as having undergone some sort of sea change, a transformation. In the context of cycling, think of the evolution of Laurent Jalabert from field sprinter, to classics threat, Vuelta winner, and finally a Tour de France polka dot jersey winner. Or Lance Armstrong's involuntary transformation from classics rider to multi-Tour winner. Watching Paris-Nice this past week, what we’re seeing in Julich is certainly a return, a reinvigoration—and that alone is remarkable achievement for him—but it isn’t a rebirth. This is the same Bobby J. we’ve known for years.

Julich’s and CSC’s performances were tenacious, consistent, and most importantly victorious, but they were far from exciting. Like his third place at the 1998 Tour and his Criterium International win the same year, Bobby’s strategy was simply to follow the wheels, not get dropped, and guard the lead when he fell into it. In effect, he simply defended for the entire race, whether he had the lead or not.

17th in the Prologue, seven seconds behind teammate Jens Voigt, Julich kept safely to the front through three ensuing sprint stages. His most aggressive moment probably came on Stage 4, when he followed an acceleration by Fassa Bortolo trio Flecha, Bossoni, and Cancellara on the Col du bois de Grignan. Jorg Jaksche and Jaan Kirsipuu also made the split, which happened with less than 20k left to race into the finish town of Montelimar. Cancellara would take the stage and the race lead by outsprinting Kirsipuu, while Julich would arrive 4th, five seconds down, together with Jaksche and Nicolas Jalabert.

Now closer than ever to his first yellow ASO-provided jersey, Julich again followed the wheels up the feared Mont Faron climb at the finish of Stage 5. He finished 10th, 41 seconds down on stage winner Gilberto Simoni, enough to give him a 19 second advantage over a similarly quiet Constantino Zaballa (Suanier-Duval) and 20 seconds over the dangerous Valverde (Illes-Balears).

When CSC rolled out for Stage 6 from La Crau to Cannes, there was obviously no intent of extending Julich’s lead—only defending and keeping an eye on things as Dutchman Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) risked life and limb on final descent to the coast to take the stage win and his first professional victory. Stage 7 was much the same, with Julich staying tucked in behind the tireless Voigt throughout the day, finally finishing the stage 13th in a 21-strong lead group to take the final GC victory.

You can’t argue with the effectiveness of the strategy—one that, by and large, Miguel Indurain rode to five successive Tour de France victories. And if riding conservatively with a certain rider wins races for the sponsor, it’s hard to advocate a slash-and-burn style that has never—rebirth or no—been Julich’s forte. But Julich is no Indurain, a quiet man who created his excitement by being head and shoulders, literally and figuratively, above everyone else against the clock.

Had Julich won the prologue, battled at the front for a stage win, or taken the reigns to dispose of a rival, his victory as the first American would seem more historic. As it is, he simply got dropped less than anyone else. It will be hard for anyone other than American fans to remember the highlights of his victory, because there were no highlights for Julich, just a steady burn below the surface. But those who have followed Julich’s career wouldn’t have expected much else. Julich is certainly back and I’m glad of it, but rebirth is simply too strong a word.