The 2019 Paris-Nice is set to be one of the best yet, with a stellar line-up of riders looking to hone their form – or at least test themselves out – over the eight-day race's sprint, hilly and mountain stages ahead of this year's Grand Tours.
While Paris-Nice has traditionally gone up against Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico to attract the world's best Grand Tour contenders and sprinters, the French race looks, at least on paper, to have nabbed the pick of the bunch, with Tirreno opting this year for a parcours that doesn't feature any high mountains or summit finishes, plumping instead for stages with the sorts of climbs you'd expect to find at the Ardennes Classics.
That may not be a bad thing, with Tirreno nevertheless attracting the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Michael Valgren (Dimension Data), and even bigger names such as Team Sky's Geraint Thomas and Bahrain-Merida's Vincenzo Nibali.
But the traditional nature of this year's Paris-Nice has attracted most of the world's top sprinters for its opening flat stages for the sprinters, while the mountainous second half of the race has brought in a glut of big-name GC riders.
In attendance for the bunch gallops will be Dimension Data's Mark Cavendish, Lotto Soudal's Caleb Ewan, Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Jumbo-Visma's Dylan Groenewegen, UAE Team Emirates' Alexander Kristoff and André Greipel (Arkea-Samsic), while the climbing has attracted overall contenders that include Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), EF Education First's Tejay van Garderen and Movistar's Nairo Quintana, with his teammate, and the defending champion, Marc Soler.
It makes for a veritable who's who of professional cycling, with barely a neo-pro among them, seemingly – and makes this the race to watch if you're after an inkling of what might happen at this year's Tour de France.
And while Paris-Nice may act as a gateway to the Tour for a number of teams – many of whose line-ups may not differ too much for La Grande Boucle from what we see here – it will also provide the key to the Tour door for other teams, who are hoping to sufficiently impress Tour organisers ASO, who also run Paris-Nice, and persuade them that they're worthy of one of the remaining two 'wildcard' places for July's race.
The fight is widely believed to be between the three French Pro Continental teams that will start in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, on Sunday: Vital Concept-B&B Hotels, Direct Energie and Arkea-Samsic, with the latter boasting potential sprint-stage winner Greipel in their ranks.
Poor Vital Concept, however, are missing their new leader, Pierre Rolland, who signed from EF Education First in the off-season, but fractured wrist at the recent Drôme Classic, while Direct Energie will count on the likes of Lilian Calmejane and their new signing, Niki Terpstra, to animate the racing and go for stage wins.
With such a star-studded line-up, Paris-Nice really could be the pick of the spring races this year, with the sprint stages, the GC battle and the fight for those remaining Tour wildcard places combining to provide the fireworks.
Here, we pick five of those riders from what will be an active cast of many to keep your eye on.
Nobody's saying that this is crunch time for Mark Cavendish, but a good showing in the sprint finishes at this year's Paris-Nice would go a long way to instilling some confidence in him, his team and his fans that Cavendish the sprinter is still with us.
Having recovered from mononucleosis, Cavendish is looking to rediscover that sprinting prowess of old, and to take a first win since stage 3 of the Dubai Tour in February 2018.
If that doesn't sound like too long ago, it's because it's really not, and illustrates perfectly the weight of expectation that has been on the Manxman since his first full pro season with T-Mobile in 2007, thanks to the 145 wins he's taken since.
Over 12 seasons, that averages out – if Cyclingnews' maths is correct – to just over 12 victories a year, which is about as good as it gets for any rider. His tally of Tour wins has 'stalled' at 30, and he'd still dearly love to try to catch, and pass, a certain Eddy Merckx's record haul of 34 Tour stage victories. But can he?
So far this season, Cavendish has scored an eighth and a 12th place at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina and 13th on stage 2 of the recent UAE Tour. Here, really, at Paris-Nice, is where Cavendish needs to begin to show that he's on track to be in Tour-stage-winning form, and going up against most of the world's best sprinters on the roads of France this coming week will give him and his Dimension Data teammates a good measure of where they currently stand.
Or Cavendish can bide his time, keep getting stronger, and simply turn up at the Tour in July and start winning then. He'd be happy either way.
That Romain Bardet is going for a more conventional build-up to this year's Tour de France is somewhat of a shame given that he took second place at last year's Strade Bianche, and crossed the finish line in Sienna looking like he'd just almost won Paris-Roubaix.
"Pure cycling," he called it, and yet here he is, skipping Strade Bianche in favour of a race arguably more suited to his strengths, which he last rode – or at least started – in 2017. Bardet was disqualified after stage 1 for having been deemed to have received "illegal assistance" from his team car when trying to get back into contention after a crash.
Still, it does give us the opportunity of watching Bardet ride in his natural habitat of the mountains – providing he's not disqualified before the race reaches them – and we'd almost put money on it being Bardet and Mitchelton-Scott's Simon Yates who are the two last men standing on the summit finish on the Col de Turini on stage 7.
Bardet has had a much later start to his season than normal, but proved he'd been putting the hard work in during training with second place at his first race, the Tour du Haut Var, in late February.
"I'm happy to get back to racing," the 28-year-old said ahead of Haut Var. "Since turning professional in 2012, I've never started a season so late."
Since then, he's finished fourth at the one-day Classic de l'Ardèche and seventh at the Drôme Classic; in fact, he's finished in the top 10 of every race he's ridden so far this year, save for the opening stage of Haut Var, where he was 13th.
After his heroics at Strade Bianche last year, Bardet will come out of Paris-Nice hoping to take a serious crack at another of the world's biggest one-day races – Milan-San Remo on March 23 – which underlines the kind of rider he is. For while the French nation want to celebrate their summer holidays with their first Tour de France winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, Bardet just likes racing, and winning, too much, no matter what time of year it is.
He's absolutely one to watch for the overall Paris-Nice title.
Simon Yates may be playing down his chance of winning Paris-Nice, insisting instead that he's focused solely on trying to win the Giro d'Italia in May, but we find it hard to believe, simply because Yates has already put his rivals to the sword on the 'queen stage' of the Ruta del Sol in late February, winning both the stage and taking the 'king of the mountains' jersey there in Spain.
Yates may want to hold back a little at Paris-Nice, but it may simply not be in the 2018 Vuelta a España winner's nature.
Of course, Yates very nearly won last year's Paris-Nice, and went into the final stage around Nice in yellow, albeit with a slender 11-second lead, having taken the leader's jersey thanks to a stage win the day before.
However, facing attacks from all angles, the British climber had to accept defeat after eventual winner Marc Soler (Movistar) hooked up with breakaway companions Omar Fraile (Astana) and David de la Cruz (Team Sky) and set about wiping out the 37-second deficit the young Spanish rider had started the day with.
It wouldn't be difficult to imagine a similar scenario unfolding again this year, but possibly without the losing part. Yates will likely be in the running on the penultimate stage to the top of the Col de Turini, and, if he has the race lead there, he'd again need to defend it on the same Nice-Nice stage, over the Col d'Eze, the next day.
"I enjoy Paris-Nice – it's a good race – and I've done it every year since I've been a professional. It's a very important part of the season," Yates told Cyclingnews ahead of the final stage of the Ruta del Sol, "but I'm not going there to target it.
"As everyone knows, I'm going 100 per cent for the Giro. For me, personally, it's not the correct way to go about being ready for the Giro.
"So I'm not going to get to Paris-Nice super lean, super in-form. It's also often cold, so if you arrive there with five per cent body fat, it's not so nice. I'll arrive a few kilos heavier and do what I can," he said – although "doing what he can" is often considerably better than a lot of his rivals.
Nairo Quintana will have to try to exert his authority as early on as he can at this year's Paris-Nice, as Movistar can also boast defending champion Marc Soler on the squad, who only deposed overnight leader Simon Yates on the final stage of the race last year, with a strong ride in horrific weather, which served to elevate the now 25-year-old's status on the Spanish WorldTour team – and provide yet another potential headache for Quintana, who already has Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa to contend with for leadership status on the team at the biggest races.
Quintana – himself still only 29 – tends to go well at the early-season European stage races – he's won the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tirreno-Adriatico twice in recent years – and he's already won this year, albeit back home, with victory on the final stage of the Tour Colombia 2.1.
He hasn't ridden Paris-Nice since 2014, when he finished 15th overall, but this will be Quintana's European debut this season, and the start of a build-up that leads to the Tour de France, where the Colombian hopes to improve upon his three podium places – second, twice, in 2013 and 2015, and third in 2016. Testing himself against younger rivals like Yates and Bardet – and, possibly, his own teammate, Soler – on the slopes of the Col de Turini will be a good gauge of how he's likely to stand up at the Tour in July.
A messy divorce from Lotto Soudal last season led to André Greipel effectively being replaced on the Belgian WorldTour team for 2019 by Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, who'll also be testing Greipel in the bunch gallops in France next week.
Greipel may have taken the step down from WorldTour to Pro Continental level, but there's no reason why that would slow the 36-year-old down when competing with the best at the WorldTour races that his French Arkea-Samsic team is invited to.
Greipel has already opened his win account with a stage victory at La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in January, and then took fifth place at the Trofeo Palma in early February and eighth place at last weekend's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
The team arrives at Paris-Nice chasing a berth at the Tour de France, too, and the two remaining 'wildcard' places are thought to be being handed out shortly after the end of Paris-Nice, and Arkea-Samsic – along with Direct Energie and Vital Concept-B&B Hotels – are widely thought to be the three teams in contention for the places.
Much of the pressure from team management will be heaped on Greipel's nevertheless capable shoulders, but he will have to use his experience and standing to delegate the task of getting him to the line in first place to his teammates, who stand to benefit immensely – a ride at the Tour de France, anyone? – if they can pull it off.
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