The 79th edition of Paris-Nice gets under way this Sunday, March 7, with the eight-day “Race to the Sun” featuring a host of top-quality GC contenders including world number one Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and defending champion Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The lineup of sprinters is equally impressive, led by Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and 2019 World Champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo).
The race’s opening days have gained a reputation for frantic and thrilling racing, triggered by the likelihood of strong winds on undulating roads in the department of Yvelines, to the west of Paris. 2020 winner Schachmann will be particularly aware of the opportunities these stages can present having triumphed on the opening day last year.
The first of them is based on Saint-Cyr-L’École and comprises two counter-clockwise laps of an 80-kilometre circuit, with two category 3 climbs in its second half. These hills are far enough out from the finish to allow the sprinters’ teams to bring the peloton back together before the finale, where Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos) should be among the sprinters targeting an early morale-boosting success.
On day two, the race takes its first big step south towards Nice on an almost pan-flat stage across the open plains below Paris, finishing in Amilly, close to the cathedral town of Chartres. On paper, it’s a sure-fire day for the sprinters, but this agricultural region is often raked by strong winds, particularly from the west, so all of the candidates for stage and GC success will be primed for this possibility.
It’s rare to see a time trial in the first half of Paris-Nice, and equally one that doesn’t include a climb or two, which makes the third day’s 14.4-kilometre individual test around Pierre Rolland’s (B&B Hotels p/b KTM) hometown of Gien particularly intriguing.
It undulates a little, but the gaps between the GC favourites shouldn’t be very significant, although the short, sharp ramp up to the finish may derail one or two. Roglic and Schachmann should finish well up, but it should particularly suit TT specialists Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers), Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka Assos) and Bob Jungels (AG2R Citroën).
Stage four through the hills of the Beaujolais region will highlight the contenders for overall victory. There are half a dozen second-category hills on the itinerary followed by the first-category ascent into the beautiful winemaking village of Chiroubles. This final climb comes at the end of two laps of a circuit that goes over the short but challenging ascent of Mont Brouilly, where Julian Alaphilippe was a convincing winner of the 2017 mid-race time trial.
The sprinters should return to the spotlight on stage five, which heads down the Rhône valley from Vienne to Bollène. There’s just a single climb on route, a third-cat that arrives 34 kilometres from the line. Once again, the wind may be a complicating factor. With the prevailing direction from the north, the looping finish into Bollène could offer opportunists the chance to split the peloton.
The roads of stage six will be familiar to many riders and fans from February’s stage races in the south of France. Running through the rugged interior of Var and Alpes-Maritimes, parallel to the Mediterranean coast, it features five categorised climbs, with the last of the climbs topping out 46 kilometres from the finish, which is in Biot just inland from Antibes. This looks a particularly good day for a breakaway, with the two much tougher stages just ahead to draw the focus of the GC contenders.
The first of these reprises last year’s finale on the Col de la Colmiane, where the "Race to a Sun” reached a premature end following the cancellation of the concluding stage into Nice, forced by the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Starting in Nice, the riders will tackle three categorised climbs in the mountains behind the city before arriving at the foot of the 16.3 kilometre Colmiane, where Nairo Quintana was the solo winner in 2020 and race leader Schachmann bravely fended off his rivals’ attacks.
There are plenty of pure climbers in the field who’ll be looking to emulate Quintana’s success, including his Colombian compatriot and 2017 Paris-Nice winner Sergio Henao (Qhubeka Assos), 2020 Giro runner-up Jai Hindley (Team DSM) and in-form Frenchman David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ).
The race ends with its traditional short and very intense stage in and around Nice itself. There are five categorised climbs on the menu, the last of them the event’s perennial, the Col d’Èze.
As was the case during the second stage of last year’s Tour de France, this iconic ascent comprises a concluding double-whammy with the Col des Quatre – which is classified as a sprint rather than a climb and consequently offers what could be extremely vital time bonuses of three, two and one to the first three riders to cross it, all before the final high-speed dive onto the Promenade des Anglais for the finish.
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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