Fear or insurance: Why does Tadej Pogačar keep sprinting for bonus seconds at Paris-Nice?
Just after Tadej Pogačar had successfully sprinted for bonus seconds at the intermediate checkpoint 13km out from the finish on stage two of Paris-Nice on Monday, the UAE Team Emirates rider puffed his cheeks out. He put his arm round Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla), his nearest challenger, and bumped fists with Nathan van Hooydonck (Jumbo-Visma), who came third in that mini battle.
It would be easy to look askance at this result - Matthews and Pogačar are great friends and Monaco neighbours - but the latter has a surprising sprint on him, and looked like he needed the bonus.
All the Slovenian won was six seconds, hardly a race-defining haul, but following his similar escapade on Sunday's stage one, he now has 12 seconds on his general classification rivals, most notably Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).
What makes these 12 seconds all the more valuable is that they have come on flat stages that would not normally allow for gaps on the GC, not without a mistake, a crash or some serious crosswind action anyway.
While their value can't be impinged, the motivation behind Pogačar sprinting on two successive days is a more interesting question.
After two sprint stages, Paris-Nice goes a bit more general classification-focused over the next couple of days, with a team time trial on Tuesday followed by a summit finish on stage four.
One can't know what is going on inside the 24-year-old's head, or what the instructions from the team car have been, but he is clearly trying to build up as much of a buffer over Vingegaard as possible before the team time trial.
"I'm really happy that I gained a small margin and I can be more relaxed going into tomorrow," he said post-stage two. "It's going to be a really tough team time trial and we gain a bit more confidence with that."
The UAE Team Emirates squad is not a weak one, with solid time triallists like former under-23 world champion Mikkel Bjerg and Austrian national champion Felix Großchartner among its number, but on paper it does not stack up to the TT prowess of Jumbo-Visma.
The Dutch team at Paris-Nice has two-time ITT world champion Rohan Dennis, reigning ITT champion Tobias Foss, Slovenian ITT champion Jan Tratnik, former European under-23 ITT champion Edoardo Affini, and the powerful Nathan van Hooydonck and Olav Kooij alongside Vingegaard, himself not a bad racer against the clock. It is a squad built for Tuesday's team time trial.
Therefore, Pogačar needs any extra assistance he can get himself before stage three; he has fulfilled his side of the bargain, now he just needs to hope that his team can limit its losses to Jumbo on Tuesday.
The following day will be just as interesting, however, and maybe just as decisive for the race. Stage four sees a new summit finish on the race, to La Loge des Gardes.
Now, this shouldn't be as hard or as steep as will come on stage seven to the Col de la Couillole, and nothing like the climbs raced at the Tour de France last summer, but there could still easily be gaps.
The last time Pogačar raced Vingegaard uphill was stage 18 of the Tour last July, where the latter put 1-04 into the former on the Hautacam, all but deciding the race. Even if one was in such good form, as Pogačar so clearly is, there must be some worry in his mind about whether he can beat his rival on a mountain; perhaps this is why the bonus seconds are necessary.
Of course, it's a new season, different terrain, and a different point in the year, so it might be that the Slovenian can easily outpace his Danish peer in the Massif Central, or at least match it, but it remains an unknown. The riders are just as in the dark over their comparative form as we, the viewers, are.
In this light, the bonus seconds are an insurance measure, better to take them if one can just in case they're necessary. Pointless to leave them on the table if you are as quick and as good as Pogačar is.
Ultimately, though, it might just be a statement of intent from the 24-year-old, proof that he is absolutely flying in 2023, and can do what he wants. Or is he scared of Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma?