The stellar Tirreno-Adriatico field, featuring no fewer than seven Grand Tour winners, may be drawing plenty of attention, but Paris-Nice still commands a world champion start list with the current road and time trial rainbow jerseys holders preferring the race to the Mediterranean over the race between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas
The second WorldTour race of the season, Paris-Nice typically starts in cold, rainy and windy conditions before reaching the spring sunshine on the Cote d’Azur. After last year’s route without time trials, this time around it returns to a more traditional, ‘chrono’ parcours, beginning with a prologue and culminating with the traditional time trial up the Col D’Éze on the final day.
Carlos Betancur will skip his defence of the “The Race to the Sun,” preferring to line up in Italy although Ag2r-La Mondiale will be confident that Jean-Christophe Péraud and Romain Bardet can challenge for the podium.
Though the early season appears to expand each year, Paris-Nice retains its importance on the calendar and remains an ideal test for the classics, with riders needing to conquer the parcours, weather and the peloton for victory. Some riders arrive in Paris with multiple wins to their names, many more are still searching to break their drought and, almost unbelievably, several are even yet to pin on a racing number in 2015.
Team Sky are fielding a strong line-up that features two previous winners of the race in Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Richie Porte (2013), while Geraint Thomas was forced to abandon the race last year when he was lying second overall. All three riders can time trial and climb and will form a redoubtable triumvirate that their rivals will struggle to break down.
Former winners Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) and Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) will also start the race with Martin an outside chance for a repeat victory. A cloud continues to hang over Astana following the UCI’s decision to ask the Licence Commission to remove its WorldTour status. At the time of writing, their appearance in the race was assured but the strain on the team’s riders is unclear.
Tejay van Garderen will lead BMC’s charge and with his second place at the Tour of Oman still fresh in his memory, the American seems ready to challenge for the win after finishing in the top five in 2012 and 2013.
The inclusion of Rafael Valls (Lampre-Merida) on the start list should be added motivation for van Garderen to make amends for underestimating the Spaniard on Green Mountain. Capable of climbing with the best, van Garderen’s time trialling prowess should see him challenge for the podium. Valls, meanwhile, will be joined on the Lampre team by Rui Costa, who finished second overall a year ago.
Runner up in 2013, Andrew Talansky is another American capable of claiming overall success, building confidence ahead of a season in which he is targeting the Tour de France, although his will be his first outing of the new season. Backing Talansky is a Cannondale-Garmin team full of riders who can challenge for stage wins on their own talent.
Fabio Aru (Astana), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) and Rafał Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) will look to test themselves on the summit finish atop the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, though the two time trials will be a hindrance to their hopes of overall victory.
World champion Michał Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick Step) leads the young brigade of challengers, with Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge), Bob Jungels (Trek) and Wilco Kelderman (Lotto-Jumbo) also on hand, while Argentinian Eduardo Sepúlveda (Bretagne Séché Environnement) is a solid climber and time triallist, and arrives at the France on form.
In the sprints, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) appears to be the form rider of the race after his glut of stage wins in Qatar and Oman last month. Kristoff will be up against fellow classics challengers John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), who won a stage last year, Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
Kristoff will also be challenged by purer fast men, including Bryan Coquard (Europcar), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and, in particular, Nacer Bouhanni, who is still looking for his first win as a Cofidis rider.
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The race kicks off in the western Parisian suburb of Maurepas with a 6.7km prologue on a pan-flat course that should turn out to be a rather straightforward affair. Damien Gaudin, now at Ag2r-La Mondiale, was a surprise winner in 2013 on a shorter, 3km course but expect the true time trial specialists challenge to come to the fore this time due to the longer length.
The first road stage of the race takes the peloton from Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse to Contres with a category three climb inside the first three kilometres the main feature on a flat 196.5km day in the saddle. This is a stage suited to the sprinters and could well be the scene of the first head-to-head between former teammates Bouhanni and Démare – though, as ever in the early exchanges at Paris-Nice, crosswinds could fracture the peloton into echelons.
A second straight sprinters’ stage continues the southern excursion from ZooParc de Beauval - Saint-Aignan to Saint-Amand-Montrond. In a reverse of the previous day, the sole climb of the day is situated towards the end of the stage on the finishing circuit in to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
Stage three appears to be one for the breakaways, with the lumpy parcours providing the platform for the escapees to try their luck. Starting in Saint-Amand-Montrond, the race finishes in Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule 179km later. There are three category three climbs, including the Col de La Bosse, before a finishing lap with the potential for a fast finish.
After picking their way through the perils of the opening days, the first real test for the GC men should come on stage four, which features six categorised climbs in the final 60km of the day including the summit finish on the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret near Saint-Étienne. The GC men are likely to set off the fireworks on the 10km-long finishing climb, with its average gradient of 6.7%, testing each other’s legs.
There is a stiff start to stage five, as the peloton faces the category one climb up the Col de la République more or less from the gun. After a 40km descent, the stage traverses the lumpy roads of the Ardèche and Drôme regions before ascending three climbs in the final 70km of the day before the finish in in Rasteau.
For the riders still in contention for the overall, stage six with be a tough day in the saddle and a last chance for non-time triallists to make their mark. The 180.5km stage starts in Vence and finishes in Nice having covered six categorised climbs, three of them category one. The last climb of the day is the 653-metre high Côte de Peille with 25km left to race, before a rapid plunge into Nice.
The final day sees a return to the traditional denouement up the Col d’Éze. Though not the steepest of climbs, the Col d’Éze has the tendency to punish weakness and the 9.5km test has the potential to shake up the general classification. The hardest part of the climb is the first two kilometres with the road averaging 7.7 %, then 8.5 %. Pacing will be key to a good time, as the road flattens out for the final kilometre and a half at the top. As ever at Paris-Nice, nothing will be certain until the final man crosses the line.