The format of Paris-Nice has often been tweaked over the years, but the fundamental characteristics of the event remain in place. The eight-day trek from the hinterland of Paris to the Côte d’Azur is replete with hidden pitfalls and always prone to the vagaries of March weather. Vigilance is a quality required by any potential winner.
The summit finish atop the Col de Turini on the penultimate stage and the 25km time trial around Barbentane on stage 5 appear to be the pivotal days in this year’s race, and will certainly bring definition to the general classification, but the brutal truth is that Paris-Nice can be lost on any given day.
Five of the last seven editions of the race have been won by Team Sky riders, and they have at least two challengers this time out, including Michal Kwiatkowski – their man for all seasons. The Polish rider, who won Tirreno-Adriatico a year ago, finished second overall on his lone previous Paris-Nice participation in 2015. He was solid if unspectacular en route to 10th overall at the recent UAE Tour, but will expect to be stronger here.
Kwiatkowski is flanked in a strong Team Sky line-up by Egan Bernal, who is building towards a leadership role at the Giro d’Italia in May. Paris-Nice is his first European outing of 2019, but he was already pedalling to good effect at the Tour Colombia 2.1 last month.
There is a notable Colombian contingent at this year’s edition of Paris-Nice, with 2017 winner Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) all present, although perhaps the most intriguing presence is that of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who returns to the race for the first time since 2013. As his track record at Tirreno-Adriatico demonstrates, Quintana is usually more than competitive in March. After a stage win in Colombia last month, he will expect to provide further indications of form here in what has the feel of a pivotal season in his career.
Few teams will have the same depth or range of options as Movistar, who will also field defending champion Marc Soler alongside Quintana, as well as Richard Carapaz and Winner Anacona. Tour Colombia winner Miguel Angel Lopez is in action for an Astana team that has seemingly forgotten how to lose, with Ion Izagirre and 2009 winner Luis Leon Sanchez also included.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) delivered a warning to the entire peloton with his solo stage win at the Ruta del Sol two weeks ago, although the Briton has downplayed his prospects at Paris-Nice, insisting that his primary objective is to continue his preparation for the Giro d’Italia. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has never made the impact at Paris-Nice that one might expect from a rider of his qualities, but he showed distinct signs of life at last week’s Tour du Haut-Var.
Other stage racing notables in action in France this week include George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), and it will be fascinating, too, to see where Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is placed after the stage 5 time trial.
A battle in the sprints – and for wildcards
With three, or perhaps even four, stages that offer the prospect of a bunch sprint, the start list includes an imposing slate of sprinters, including Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).
As ever, there are plenty of men fine-tuning their preparation for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics, and most notably Michael Matthews (Sunweb) – a strong performer across a range of terrain at Paris-Nice – Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Michael Valgren (Dimension Data), Oliver Naesen (AG2R) and Luke Rowe (Sky).
A subplot worth following through the week, meanwhile, is the battle between French squads Vital Concept, Direct Energie and Arkea-Samsic for the final two Tour de France wildcards. Direct Energie look the favourites to snap up the first remaining slot, but will hope men like Niki Terpstra and Lilian Calmejane catch the eye this week to make sure of their place.
Arkea-Samsic and Vital Concept, meanwhile, could find themselves going head-to-head in the sprints, with much resting on the shoulders of André Greipel and Bryan Coquard. Arkea also boast Warren Barguil, who will surely be an aggressive presence, while Vital Concept might well rue the absence of the injured Pierre Rolland.
The race begins in the Yvelines department for the 10th year in a row, and the flat opener around Saint-Geramin-en-Laye should give the sprinters an early opportunity. Stages 2 and 3, to Bellegarde and Moulins, respectively, also appear to favour the fast men on first glance, although the flat, exposed terrain means that there is a continuous risk of echelons.
The terrain becomes slightly more rugged on stage 4 from Vichy to Pelussin, with four climbs in the final 60km, including the short but steep Côte de Condrieu. The category 2 Côte de Chavanay, meanwhile, is just 10km from the finish and offers an obvious springboard for late attacks.
The stage 5 time trial around Barbentane will define the state of play ahead of the race’s mountainous finale. The 25.5km test includes a climb to the abbey of St Michel de Frigolet around the mid-point, but will still favour the specialists.
The following day’s stage to Brignoles has a rolling finale that lends itself to attackers before a final weekend that brings the race onto altogether more demanding roads. Stage 7 from Nice to the Col de Turini is 181.5km in length and features six climbs, although the principal focus will be on the final two ascents as the race enters the Alps. The category 1 Côte de Pelasque (5.7km at 6.2%) is followed by the Col de Turini. 14.9km in length at an average gradient of 7.3%, it provides a redoubtable examination at this early point in the season.
That may be the étape reine of the 2019 Paris-Nice, but the final leg in and around Nice has perhaps provided the best spectacle in recent seasons. Traditionalists might decry the absence of the Col d’Eze time trial, which has featured just five times since 1995, but ASO understandably saw little reason to change the formula for 2019.
The 110km stage, starting and ending in Nice, is identical to last season’s finale, taking in the Côte de Châteauneuf, Col de Calaïson, Côte de Peille, Col d'Eze and Col des Quatre Chemins ahead of a white-knuckle drop into Nice. A year ago, a breathless final stage saw Marc Soler snatch overall victory on the Promenade des Anglais from an unfortunate Simon Yates. Even with the Turini the previous day, expect similar suspense.