Paris-Nice reaches new heights with stinging finale

The so-called Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice, has been a staple of the calendar since 1933 and is often a preview of what is to come a few months later. Past winners include Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly – who holds the record for seven victories – and Miguel Indurain.

However, with Tirreno-Adriatico also providing a tasty spring alternative, the French race faces a tough battle to ensure a strong line-up in the general classification. Nevertheless, a challenging parcours with the race’s highest ever summit finish on the Col de la Couillole has attracted some big hitters.

Last year’s race had fans on the edges of their seats with a thrilling final stage that saw Alberto Contador try to unseat Geraint Thomas from the top step of the podium. Thomas would hold on, but by just four seconds. The organisers will hope that the route they have dreamed up for 2017 will deliver them an equally nail-biting finale.

The GC contenders

Having just missed out this year, Contador (riding for Trek-Segafredo in 2017) will be as keen as ever for his third Paris-Nice title. Contador has come out swinging this season but hasn’t quite hit the mark just yet. However, many of the riders he has been up against are readying themselves for the Giro d’Italia, and this will not be too much of a concern. The route is well designed for him, even considering the mid-week time trial and, if all the stages to go ahead as planned, he is the big race favourite.

Team Sky has dominated Paris-Nice in recent times, winning four of the last five editions. They will not have Thomas, as he heads to Tirreno-Adriatico, while their preferred leader for the 2017 race Wout Poels has had to pull out due to illness. Sergio Henao and Kenny Elissonde will, instead, provide their firepower in the mountains.

Richie Porte (BMC) joins Contador on the start line as the only other multiple winner of the race. Porte was in dominant form at the start of the season when he rode his way to victory at the Tour Down Under. It has been over a month since he’s raced though so his form is an unknown quantity here. The time trial will be good news for him and provides a small chance to put some time into Contador et al.

Home favourite Romain Bardet has had mixed fortune at Paris-Nice in the past. He has said that the race is where things really get serious for him in 2017 as he looks to build on last year. He has also stated that he needs to be prepared to lose races in search of victory so we can expect him to be as aggressive as ever.

Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNl-Jumbo) will also be one to watch. The Dutchman is one of the few Giro d’Italia contenders going to France for his spring riding, and he should be in strong form, provided his training has gone to plan. Julian Alaphilippe, David de la Cruz and Dan Martin give Quick-Step Floors some serious options while Simon Yates heads up the Orica-Scott squad. Movistar will have to think outside of the box after their GC man Alejandro Valverde was forced to pull out through illness.

The sprinters

With four solid opportunities for the sprinters at Paris-Nice, there is a seriously strong line-up of fast man set to rock up in France. Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) is top of that list with five victories already this season after strong performances at Dubai and Abu Dhabi. His German compatriot André Greipel has not been as prolific, but the Lotto Soudal rider still looks strong this season.

Katusha-Alpecin's Alexander Kristoff turns up at the race with the second most victories this season after Kittel. However, he comes with a point to prove after crashing out of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend and missing the key move in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Cofidis’ Nacer Bouhanni is yet to get off the mark, and he too will have something to prove at Paris-Nice.

Michael Matthews is one of the few riders making their debut at Paris-Nice, a format he’s followed over the past couple of years. This year, of course, he will be riding for Team Sunweb, while their former sprinter John Degenkolb is at the race with his new squad Trek-Segafredo. The trickier stages 1 and 4 could be where the two go head to head.

Other sprinters in attendance are Sam Bennett, Bryan Coquard, Arnaud Demare, Dan McLay, Simon Gerrans, Andrea Guardini and Danny Van Poppel.

The route

A circuit around Bois-d’Arcy kicks things off and allows the sprinters a chance to get a win on the board early doors. The riders will complete two long laps, with one third category climb, in an elongated criterium-style route before an uphill drag to the line.

The first three stages are extremely sprinter-friendly, with finishes in Amilly and Chalon-sur-Saône, and should provide a good platform for the fast men to show whose winter training has been best. For the general classification riders, they will just have to do their best to keep their noses clean as an early crash could put an end to any hopes of glory.

All things going to plan, stage 4 should be the first shakeup in the general classification as the riders take on the 14.5-km time trial to Mount Brouilly. It’s almost entirely flat to start but with five kilometres to go the road begins to rise. Mount Brouilly begins gently enough, but the gradient gets steeper and steeper until the final kilometre, which averages almost 10 per cent.

The climb is short enough that most will likely use their time trial bike, but there may be a few that opt for the road bike with aero attachments. The organisers tried to include Mount Brouilly in last year’s race, but snow forced them to cancel the stage all together. 2017 will then be its first true appearance at Paris-Nice.

For stage 5, the general classification teams will step aside again to allow the sprinters do their thing. The rolling roads between Quincié-en-Beaujolais to Bourg-de-Péage could also be a chance for the puncheurs to upset the form-book.

A lengthy transfer awaits the riders ahead of stage six and the Mediterranean coast beckons for the first mountain stage from Aubagne to Fayence. Six climbs scatter the 193-km route, with the first hitting the riders immediately. There’ll be shouts of gruppetto as the riders begin the ascent of the first category Col de l’Espigoulier. There is some respite once they’re at the top and the next of the categorised climbs doesn’t come until the 116km mark, but it is a relentless series of them from there until the second category rise into Fayence.

That was just the softener as the riders make their first trip to Nice for the start of the penultimate stage to the Col de la Couillole. Two more first category climbs, the highest rating at Paris-Nice, come before the stinging finale, and it will be a brutal ride. At this time of the year, snow makes summit finishes a logistical nightmare, and at 1,662 metres the Col de la Couillole is the highest the race has reached before. The riders will take on the easier of the ascents, beginning in Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée and averaging 7.1 per cent over 15.7km.

Finishing the race off will be a loop out from Nice and over five categorised climbs, including the Col d’Eze. At just 115km, it should be a fast and furious finish to the week of racing.

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