In 2018, the theme of Paris-Nice is 'attack!'. The 76th edition has been designed to provide entertaining and GC-focused racing from kilometre zero in Chatou to the final finish in Nice.
Although the start list is lacking some of the stars it has attracted in previous years, the 'race to the sun' offers an unpredictable course and opportunity for new names to press their claim as riders to watch for 2018 and beyond.
The first stage of the 76th Paris-Nice will start on the Île des Impressionnistes before heading onto the training roads westwards of Paris. Two cat 3 climbs, the Tour de France favourite Côte des 17 Tournants and Côte de Méridon, will give a breakaway reason to ride and claim the first King of the Mountains jersey of the race. The stage then snakes back towards the capital, north of Versailles and via Sèvres for the 1.9-kilometre climb to the Paris Observatory in Meudon. The stage is set to see a selection in the finale but the general classification won't be decided here.
Stage 2 starts in the small town of Orsonville, population 400, and heads south to Vierzon through the Loire for a predicted sprint finish. If the winds are up and the weather foul, the stage could blow open the general classification although a bunch finish is a predictable outcome. Two right-handers in the final kilometre and a slight uphill finish ensure position and timing will be key in taking out the victory.
Stage 3 will start in Bourges, a city with a long history and beautiful cathedral, with the peloton continuing its jaunt south to the Mediterranean. At 210 kilometres, it is the longest stage of the race. Climbs are back on the menu with the cat 3 trio of Côte de la Bosse, Côte des Boulards, and Côte de Charbonnières to enliven the battle for the polka dot jersey. A breakaway should be reeled in after the final climb 20 kilometres from the Châtel-Guyon finish. A slight dip in the road then rises and flattens for the finish with a second bunch sprint in as many days the expected outcome. An instant shot at redemption for those riders who missed out in Vierzon.
Following a 140-kilometre transfer south-east, the riders and teams will prepare for the individual time trial. Stage 4 is an 18.5-kilometre test against the clock from La Fouillouse to Saint-Étienne. The riders will climb to Saint-Héand for the intermediate time check before a technical ride into the finish at the home of AS Saint-Etienne, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. The stage will see the first significant time gaps open on the general classification.
Salon-de-Provence, the host of last year's Tour de France stage 19, welcomes the Paris-Nice peloton for stage 5. Heading north, the first of the categorised climbs comes 50 kilometres into the day with the cat 2 Col du Pointu. The first major climb of the race follows with the cat 1 Col de Lagarde-d'Apt, topping out at 1,097 metres in elevation. On rolling roads, the cat 3 Col du Negron at 1,242 metres is next before the downhill dash into Sisteron and a lap around the town. On the circuit, the peloton will tackle the Côte de la Marquise in a replica finish of the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné. On that day Nacer Bouhanni won after an aggressive finale and a reduced bunch sprint finish could be on the cards.
Stage 6 rolls out of Sisteron under the shadows of the picturesque Sisteron Citadel and takes the road south to Vence. With five categorised climbs, it is a day with plenty of up and down and a chance for riders to chase important mountain points. In the battle for the GC, the final cat 1 climb, Côte de la Colle sur Loup, will be important for positioning before the uphill finale. Seconds rather then minutes will be lost and won on the finish line.
The penultimate stage from Nice to the Valdeblore La Colmiane ski summit is the major mountain stage of the race and set to shake up the GC. The riders will leave Nice via the Promenade des Anglais, used for Sunday's stage 8 finish, with the first climbing test via the cat 2 Côte de Gattières. The rolling roads, cat 1 Côte de la Sainte-Baume and cat 2 Col Saint-Raphaël and Côte de Villars-sur-Var climbs will test the legs before the 16.3-kilometre climb to the ski station. The first two kilometres of the climb average 8 per cent while the final five kilometres are between 6-7 per cent. The climb is unlikely to be as dramatic as stage 15 of the 1975 Tour de France , when Bernard Thévenet dethroned Eddy Merckx, but promises a GC battle royale. Time gaps could be in the minutes by day's end.
The traditional Nice finale is retained for 2018 but with some minor tweaks as six categorised climbs ensure a tough finish to the race. The fast and ferocious stage 8 will culminate with the ascent of the Col d'Èze, then a fast descent into the five kilometre Col des Quatre Chemins. From the summit, just nine kilometres remain for what ASO hopes will be a thriller decided by seconds.
In the battle for yellow, Team Sky has been the team to beat since 2012. Carlos Betancur's 2014 win is the only edition Team Sky has lost in recent years. Defending champion Sergio Henao and Wout Poels form a formidable duo for the British team and both start as favourites.
The list of challengers is long in Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Ion and Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic), Marc Soler (Movistar), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scot), Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-Floors) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).
The sprint field also contains depth in Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Dan McLay (EF Education-Drapac), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Elia Viviani (QuickStep-Floors).
Cyclingnews will have full reports, results, photo galleries and news from Paris-Nice from March 4.