Despite the absence of a few super heavy hitters, this year's Paris-Nice was no less revealing, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

So many things happened at Paris-Nice, it almost feels like we've been through a Grand Tour already, even though we only saw just eight days of racing.

The prologue was a demonstration of just how serious Michal Kwiatkowski was about discovering his stage race potential, eschewing a title defence at Strade Bianche to be as good as he could from the get-go.

Pundits already tipped the Pole to be a future Grand Tour star. I felt it premature, since prior to this year, in five seasons as a pro, Kwiatkowski's most notable GC results were second overall at the 2012 Tour of Poland (to Moreno Moser), and second again at last year's Tour of the Basque Country (to Alberto Contador).

The 24-year-old said as much to L'Equipe last Monday - "I'm only 24 and I'm not ready yet to have great ambitions in big Tours" - while his Etixx-Quick-Step sport director Wilfried Peeters was a little more coarse: "He's not Froome or Nibali. His legs are too big for the highest mountains."

Peeters said Kwiatkowski would, for the time being, not go for GC at the Tour de France but he had the capacity to win a one-week race. Last week demonstrated having the capacity to win and actually delivering are two very different things: on Stage 4, he could not hold onto Porte's wheel when the Tasmanian countered Geraint Thomas' move on the final climb of the Croix de Chaubouret, bridging across to his team-mate before they went 1-2; on Stage 6 from Vence to Nice, together with three team-mates he attacked Porte and Thomas, but when they clawed their way back and countered, he was unable to respond, helped only by the former pair hitting the deck en route to La Turbie. With a second separating Porte and Kwiatkowski before Sunday's decisive time trial up the Col d'Éze, the latter conceded a further 29 seconds in the 9.5km time test - and in some ways was lucky to still finish second overall, given third and fourth, Simon Spilak and Rui Costa, finished on equal time.

As far as I'm concerned, Kwiatkowski's capacity to recover and back up across the space of a week, let alone three, is still unproven, as is his ability to handle the high mountains, particularly when there are more than one in a day, as is often the case in Grand Tours.

I'm yet to be convinced by Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky, either. One week, yes - but that said, after their Paris-Nice last week, even they would concede their performances left more questions than answers, ending their French foray 5'41 and 30'22 behind Porte, the overall champion, on GC.

Both are attacking riders but prefer rhythm over stop-start-stop-start when the road rises, and unlike Porte, who has improved immensely in this area, neither American has made notable gains when up against the best in the biz. When van Garderen finished fifth in the 2012 Tour, aged 24, he ended the race 11'04 behind Bradley Wiggins; when he ran fifth again last July, aged 26, he finished 11'24 behind Vincenzo Nibali. Okay, last year he endured his share of mishap, but Contador and Chris Froome were out and 2014 Giro champ Nairo Quintana did not race - so was it a result that continues to warrant a position of outright leadership at BMC? Meanwhile, Talansky's proclivity for off days doesn't inspire great confidence in the pugnacious Cannondale-Garmin leader; the 26-year-old can hold his form nicely over a week to 10 days, but any more than that and inconsistency begins to creep in. As Cameron Meyer told me the day he was crowned champion of this year's Herald Sun Tour, "if you actually count how many guys in the world can win Grand Tours, it's probably five"; he's admitted he's not yet one of them, and as it stands, neither is van Garderen or Talanksy.

Which brings me to Richie Porte.

Having turned 30 this January (on January 30), time was a-ticking for Porte (who, like Talanksy, has an equally fiery persona) to not just prove to himself he is capable of leading a team at a Grand Tour, but prove to his team, who exhibit a businesslike propensity to jettison riders they no longer feel are performing. It is coming on five years since he enjoyed his breakthrough result at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, ending seventh overall and taking home the best young rider's jersey, and Richie, more than anyone, knows that if he is to lead Team Sky at this year's Giro, he can no longer rely on past performances.

His time since joining Sky has been largely spent at the service of Messieurs Wiggins and Froome; last year was to be his first opportunity to lead a squad in a Grand Tour, but illness saw a sub-optimal season that was emblematic of the team's season-wide lack of success. In hindsight, it was a sage move to skip the 2014 Giro, because had he faced off against Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru et al. and endured the apocalyptic conditions Mother Nature threw at the peloton - and undoubtedly got sicker still - he may never have gone back again.

Since the start of the season Porte looks, talks, walks - and, most importantly, rides - like a man reborn. Despite being two kilos lighter than when he won Paris-Nice two years ago he has lost none of his power in the race against the clock, and his climbing last week was positively angelic. Part a result of a subtle change of tactics by Team Sky, part an excellent off-season where he took ample time to rebuild himself and his confidence, Porte appears primed for his best ever Grand Tour outing at the 2015 Giro. Still two months away, perhaps the only cause for concern is that Richie has been going full steam since early January, but his truncated 2014 season and Sky's trainers, in particular Tim Kerrison, will ensure he arrives in San Lorenzo al Mare on May 9 fresh and fit as a fiddle.

Personally, I can't wait.