Romain Bardet started 2014 strongly with the best young rider and 13th overall at the Tour of Oman and backed up his Persian Gulf result with victory at La Drôme Classic on Sunday. The 23-year-old AG2R-La Mondiale rider will share the leadership responsibilities at the 72nd Paris-Nice with Carlos Betancur, who already has an overall win to his name this season, the Haut-var.
Defending champion Richie Porte (Team Sky), 2013 Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and 2013 Tour of California champion Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) all enter the "Race to the Sun" as favourites although Bardet has a chance to cause an upset.
"Everything is going as I expected. I chose not to race in January and to begin my season quite late, at the Tour of Oman. It all went smoothly, with the opportunity to tweak my form and, most importantly, to ride at a high pace in the stage to Green Mountain [stage 8]," Bardet told ASO.
"Last weekend I went back to a different style of racing at the Classic Sud Ardèche and the Drôme Classic. Everything turned out great at these nervous races, in both of which I had to step to the fore, and I was able to pick up my first professional win in a one-day race. It is crucial for me to build confidence ahead of my objective, Paris-Nice."
Depending on how the race plays out, Bardet is happy to share the responsibility of leader with Betancur.
"On paper, we'll both be protected riders. However, the course will later force us to be proactive, reactive, and pragmatic. We'll adapt to the results and race circumstances throughout the week.
"We'll have to be on the hunt for top places and seconds every single day"
As a climber, Bardet’s chances for a high overall result have been helped by a reduction of time trial kilometres in this year’s edition of the race, but every stage is likely to impact upon the GC.
"I was obviously happy when I saw there'd be no time trialling. I also think there isn't a single queen stage in which the riders of a given team can set the race on fire for their leader. This means we'll have to be on the hunt for top places and seconds every single day. "
"To do this, we'll have to go on the attack. Wednesday will be the first test after a handful of stages in which we'll have to be extra careful with the wind."
AG2R are blessed with GC leaders such as Jean-Christophe Péraud who has been a consistent performer at the Tour de France since he switched from 26-inch wheels to 700, Italian Domenico Pozzovivo and Betancur while Rinaldo Nocentini and Christophe Riblon are also handy rider to be able to call upon.
For Bardet, the first WorldTour race in Europe for the year is an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of being a protected leader for a stage race, and he admits that he is still developing rider but certainly one to watch in 2014 and in coming years.
"My aim is starting to fill the leader's boots and achieving a good result in the overall classification. It's the logical next step in my progression, which will be spread across several seasons. But I can already say I feel stronger than last year.
"There's no way I could have gone so fast at this time of the season back then. This doesn't mean the learning phase is over, quite the opposite, but I want to get used to riding like the men who finish these races at the top."
"If my legs agree and the opportunity arises, I won't think twice before tearing up all these plans next week."