After kicking off the season in Australia at the Tour Down Under, the WorldTour returns to Europe for its first event on the continent, Paris-Nice, and five teams from the host nation of France all look to figure in the mix.
The Pro Continental Team Europcar squad was expecting to have a two-pronged attack at Paris-Nice via last year's Tour de France heroes Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland, but the team announced today that the knee injury sustained by Rolland at the Tour de Haut Var will keep the Tour's best young rider off the roster. Rolland, who has claimed the only victory for Europcar thus far this season, will be replaced by Vincent Jérôme.
The team still has plenty of potential to leave its mark at Paris-Nice, with Voeckler returning to the race after winning two stages in last year's edition.
Team Europcar for Paris-Nice: Yukiya Arashiro (Jpn), Giovanni Bernaudeau (Fra), Sébastien Chavanel (Fra), Damien Gaudin (Fra), Vincent Jérôme (Fra), Davide Malacarne (Ita), Alexandre Pichot (Fra), Thomas Voeckler (Fra)
AG2R-La Mondiale is one of two French ProTour squads and the team will have two strong overall options at Paris-Nice via its leaders Jean-Christophe Peraud and Nicolas Roche. Peraud, who turned pro in 2010 at the age of 32, has had solid performances in each of his previous two Paris-Nice rides. Peraud finished 8th overall in 2010, 1:16 down on winner Alberto Contador, and followed that performance in 2011 with a 6th place general classification finish, 1:24 down on winner Tony Martin.
Peraud is a solid performer against the clock, having won the French elite time trial championship in 2009 while still an amateur, and with Paris-Nice bookended with time trials the Frenchman may have his best Paris-Nice performance yet.
Peraud's teammate, Roche, had his career best Paris-Nice performance in 2010 when the Irishman finished 10th overall and finished in the top-10 on four stages. He's recently finished 13th at last Sunday's G.P. Città di Lugano preceded by a 14th overall result at the Volta ao Algarve.
AG2R-La Mondiale for Paris-Nice: Maxime Bouet (Fra), Mikaël Cherel (Fra), Hubert Dupont (Fra), Blel Kadri (Fra), Sébastien Minard (Fra), Anthony Ravard (Fra), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra), Nicolas Roche (Irl)
FDJ-Big Mat returned to the ProTour ranks in 2012 and will be led in Paris-Nice by Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo. The team's directeur sportif Marc Madiot has taken a cautious approach when appraising his team's chances during the eight-day stage race. "You must be very careful, you can leave disappointed even with riders in shape," Madiot told AFP.
Casar has performed well at Paris-Nice earlier in his career with his best results earned ten years ago in 2002 with a second place overall finish. Casar arrives at the start in good condition with a solid fourth place overall finish at the Tour of Oman in his palmares. Fedrigo, a former French national champion, three-time Tour de France stage winner and 2010 Criterium International champion, arrives at Paris-Nice with a 7th overall at Etoile de Bessèges and a 10th overall at the Tour du Haut-Var in his legs.
FDJ-Big Mat's best chances for success may come via stage wins and with sprinter Yauheni Hutarovich, recently runner-up at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, along with Rémi Pauriol, winner of last Saturday's Boucles du Sud Ardèche, in the team's ranks they have the talent to deliver.
FDJ-Big Mat for Paris-Nice: Sandy Casar (Fra), Pierrick Fédrigo (Fra), Anthony Geslin (Fra), Yauheni Hutarovich (Blr), Arnold Jeannesson (Fra), Rémi Pauriol (Fra), Cédric Pineau (Fra), Jeremy Roy (Fra)
The Pro-Continental Saur-Sojasun team has two contenders for general classification in Jérôme Coppel, ninth overall in 2010's Paris-Nice, plus Jonathan Hivert, eighth overall in 2009.
Coppel has started his 2012 campaign on exceptional form, having won the time trial stage as well as general classification at Etoile de Bessèges early in February followed by a third place overall result at the Vuelta a Andalucia, which concluded last Thursday. Hivert finished eighth overall at this year's edition of Etoile de Bessèges, followed by a fourth place overall result at the Tour du Haut-Var.
Saur-Sojasun for Paris-Nice: Jérôme Coppel (Fra), Jimmy Engoulvent (Fra), Jérémie Galland (Fra), Jonathan Hivert (Fra), David Le Lay (Fra), William Levarlet (Fra), Julien Simon (Fra), Yannick Talabardon (Fra)
The Pro Continental Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne team will look to Estonia's Rein Taaramae to again be a contender for overall victory. Taaramae just missed a final podium finish last year with his fourth place finish, the only non-ProTour rider in the top-20 overall. Taaramae, the reigning Estonian time trial champion, can both climb and perform well against the clock and should once again figure in the overall equation. The 24-year-old Estonian has already notched solid results in his build-up to Paris-Nice with a third place overall at Etoile de Bessèges followed with a second place finish on general classification at the Vuelta a Andalucia.
Taaramae will have solid support with teammates David Moncoutié, four-time mountains classification winner at the Vuelta, Rémy Di Grégorio, a stage winner at last year's Paris-Nice, plus Samuel Dumoulin, a winner of this year's GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise.
Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne for Paris-Nice: Mickaël Buffaz (Fra), Rémy Di Grégorio (Fra), Samuel Dumoulin (Fra), Jan Ghyselinck (Bel), Luis Angel Mate (Spa), David Moncoutié (Fra), Rein Taaramae (Est), Tristan Valentin (Fra)