Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) may be joining the exodus of European talent to warmer climes when he lines up at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina next week, but the Frenchman admitted that his 2012 season begins in earnest at Paris-Nice in March.
Speaking at the recent Omega Pharma-Quick Step team presentation, Chavanel explained that while his first races of the new campaign will be in Argentina and Oman, his focus throughout the season’s opening salvoes is on his preparation for Paris-Nice.
“Like a lot of riders, my first objective is going to be Paris-Nice really,” Chavanel said. “It’s the race that really starts my season, and from there until the end of April is the first really important period of the year for me.”
Chavanel’s best Paris-Nice performance to date came in 2009, when he captured a stage, wore the leader’s jersey and finished third overall, and the Châtellerault native is normally an aggressive presence at the race. After being forced to abandon due to illness last year, he is keen to make amends at the Race to the Sun this time around.
“A good Paris-Nice for me would be if I finished high up on general classification and won a stage, which I’ve had the habit of doing for the past number of years,” Chavanel said, before promptly adding, “Except last year, which was exceptional because I was ill…”
Although the route for 2012 has yet to be announced, some stages have been leaked by the local press in France, and the legendary Col d’Eze time trial is touted to make a return in its traditional slot on the final day. Whether those rumours come to fruition or not, Chavanel believes that the parcours will prove more exacting than last year, when Tony Martin’s stage 6 time trial victory divested the race of much of its suspense.
“There’s the time trial on the Col d’Eze and all that, so it’s a real Paris-Nice, a bit of a return to the past,” he said. “It’s a nice route. Maybe they wanted to put more difficulties on the route in order to avoid having a boring race like last year.”
A capable time triallist earlier in his career, a secondary goal for Chavanel in 2012 is to regain some of his former prowess against the watch after stalling in recent seasons. “An uphill time trial is a completely different thing, but in any case, I’m just hoping I can find my rhythm again in time trials generally by doing more training on the TT bike.”
After suffering from sciatica during the 2011 season, Chavanel underwent surgery to remove a herniated disk in November, and he has noted “an extraordinary difference” since the operation. “I don’t have those niggles at the base of my back anymore, so I hope I’ll find a bit more force now,” he said.
Once Chavanel reaches Nice, his thoughts will turn to the cobbled classics, where he will again be a crucial foil to Tom Boonen at the Tour of Flanders. An agonising second in last year’s epic Ronde, Chavanel anticipates a rather different race on the new route for 2012. Gone are the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg, and in their place come three ascensions of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont.
“The new circuit is going to change the way the race develops,” he said. “In the past, you had a group of 30 riders coming in to the finale together. With this finishing circuit though, it’s going to explode and you’re going to see lots of small groups forming.”
Another crucial difference, of course, is the collective might of the expensively assembled BMC classics squad. With Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd bolstering an already solid line-up, will the race be theirs to control? A grin from Chavanel. “There a lots of new teams with good riders so I just can't wait to see how the different scenarios play out.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.