Some six years have passed since Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) last raced at Paris-Nice, but the Spaniard will be hoping to land a third overall victory in the Race to the Sun when he lines up for Sunday's prologue in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.
Contador's victory in the race as a 24-year-old in 2007 established his place in the hierarchy at Discovery Channel ahead of his win in that year's Tour de France.
In 2009, Contador looked to have shored up overall victory when he won atop Montagne de Lure only to lose the race when he suffered a hunger knock on the following stage to Fayence, prompting his then teammate Lance Armstrong to underline the tensions with the Astana set-up by tweeting "Amazing talent but still a lot to learn."
The following year, Contador returned to Paris-Nice to take his second overall victory in what was his last appearance in the event. The Spaniard skipped the race in 2011, was absent due to a doping ban in 2012, and has raced Tirreno-Adriatcio in each of the past three seasons.
"I'm returning to the race that revealed me as a rider, in 2007, and which in some aspects was the springboard for the Tour de France," Contador said in a statement on Wednesday.
"It's a special race where I have always performed well. In addition, it is a very important one in terms of preparation because it gives you pace and provides a good base for the rest of the year. On the other hand, it's also a complicated race, because of the big number of rivals, its parcours and the often tough weather conditions."
Contador's absence from recent editions of Paris-Nice means that he has missed the opportunity to test himself in the Col d'Éze time trial, which was reintroduced after an 11-year absence in 2012. The traditional finale is not on this year's route, however, though the parcours remains a difficult one, with the penultimate stage to a summit finish atop La Madone d'Utelle particularly demanding.
“It is one of the toughest that I can recall, very hilly, but on the other hand it kicks off with a flat prologue that isn't technical at all, it's very well suited to specialists,” Contador said. “I'll miss the time-trial on Col d'Éze, which I have never been able to race, but instead it has two summit finishes, one for powerful riders and another for climbers."
Contador started his season at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal last month, and he showcased his early form by winning the summit finish at Alto de Malhao ahead of Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot, and then placing third overall in a race won by Geraint Thomas (Sky). Though the Tour de France is the centrepiece of Contador's year, he is targeting overall victory next week in Nice.
"I'd like this first part of the season to be as good as possible,” he said. “It's certain Paris-Nice is going to be a top-level race where everybody wants to win, even if it's a demanding one due to the level of the rivals and the difficulty in controlling it. Tinkoff heads to Paris-Nice with the intention to race well and fight for victory."
It remains to be seen whether 2016 will be Contador's final season as a professional, as the Spaniard has intimated that he could be minded to continue if he could manage to create his own WorldTour team for 2017. It is more certain, however, that 2016 will be Oleg Tinkov's final year as backer of the Tinkoff team.
"It's a very special year for us, as it is the last one for Oleg Tinkov as owner and for Tinkoff Bank as sponsor," Contador said. "For that reason as well, we have been working very well."
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