Even if Tirreno-Adriatico boasts more headline acts this year, Paris-Nice remains a marquee event for Classics riders and stage racers alike. “The Race to the Sun” takes an oftentimes rainy, windy and snowy route before reaching said sunshine, as winter turns very reluctantly to spring in central and southern France. Such conditions are an ideal test of the Classics man’s mettle, while the hilly closing stages are a stiff early-season gauge for those with Grand Tour aspirations.
Paris-Nice is thus a race that traditionally rewards riders with a mixed skill set – tactical nous and the ability to cope with echelons are crucial to remaining in contention, but raw strength is ultimately telling. As David Millar pointed out to Cyclingnews recently, the week follows a familiar pattern: “You make sure you don’t get caught out in the crosswinds in the first couple of days, then if you go for GC, you try not to lose too much time on the uphill finish and then it all comes down to the Col d’Èze time trial.”
Heading the list of favourites is Tejay van Garderen, who finished 5th overall last season. A solid climber and time triallist, and backed by a strong BMC team – including world champion Philippe Gilbert – the young American has a fine opportunity to take his first stage race win as a professional here. His fellow countryman Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) also enters the race with genuine overall aspirations, even though he is perhaps a year or so behind van Garderen’s development.
Blanco Pro Cycling, meanwhile, do not have time on their side as they look to attract a title sponsor to secure the team’s existence beyond the end of the season. Not surprisingly, the Dutch outfit has made a strong start to the campaign, and they will be looking to continue in that manner at Paris-Nice, particularly with WorldTour points on offer. Robert Gesink is the leader, and showed his form at the recent Vuelta a Murcia, while 21-year-old Wilco Kelderman has also targeted the race.
Another Dutchman, Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM), was a surprise second last year, and he was bubbling under at the Volta ao Algarve last month. Richie Porte (Sky) was prominent in his support of Bradley Wiggins on that occasion, but this time around, he will line up with a rare opportunity to ride as team leader.
The home challenge is headed by Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) and Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), while Movistar duo Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana, Katusha’s Denis Menchov and Cannondale’s Ivan Basso are other names that stand out on the start list.
Philippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) are the pick of the Classics contenders on show, while Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) will be the man to beat in the sprints, with Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Elia Viviani (Cannondale) all poised if the German falters.
The race is book-ended by two time trials – a prologue in Houilles so short (2.9km) that is unlikely to provoke gaps of any significance and a concluding time trial up Col d’Éze that should ultimately prove decisive – but the six road stages in between are unpredictable in the extreme, with splits dictated by weather and prevailing winds as much as by topography.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) put it best earlier this week, when he told the Belgian press that he was aiming for a stage win but in the same breath admitted that he didn’t quite know which one. “A stage that should finish in a sprint can turn into a battle if there’s wind, and 30 guys can go away,” he warned.
On last year’s opening road stage, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Sky provoked a split in crosswinds that immediately eliminated all but 20 or so riders from overall contention, and a similar ambush is possible this time around. Stages 1 and 2 are nominally devoted to the sprinters, but the exposed run through Yvelines on Monday – not to mention numerous changes in direction – means that vigilance is required.
Stage 3 to Brioude has a sting in the tail in the form of the short but steep 2nd category climb of the Côte de Mauvagnat, which comes just 15km from the finish, but the real fireworks ought to ensue on the following day to St. Vallier, where Cadel Evans triumphed during last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné. Seven climbs are liberally strewn along the 199.5km route, and it will be difficult for any one team to control affairs.
On paper, at least, stage 5 ought to follow more of a set script, with the contenders likely to stick close together until the summit finish at La Montagne de Lure (13.8km at an average gradient of 6.6%.) It has the potential to decide the race outright, but it’s worth noting that while Alberto Contador was a dominant winner at the summit on Paris-Nice’s last visit in 2009, a fringale the following day paved the way for Luis Leon Sanchez’s overall victory.
A rugged stage 6 to Nice is tempered by the long drop from the Col du Ferrier to the finish, but there is no respite to be had on the time trial to Col d’Éze on the following day. “The Col d’Èze in Paris-Nice is an iconic part of the history of the sport and always makes for a close finale,” says David Millar. “Anything can happen overall. You can have a bad day there and lose it all. It’s not going to be a boring finish and the whole race is very physically demanding.”