The first major stage race of the year starts on Sunday and then makes its way to Nice. There will be daily stage previews here and ahead of the race here’s a look at who might shine in the “race to the sun”.
The first three stages are promised to the sprinters although there’s variety along the way with hidden hills and a provisional forecast for crosswinds too. Time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds await at the finish for all the road race stages. Stage 4 on Wednesday is the first set piece rendez-vous for the overall contenders, a 14.5km time trial amid the Beaujolais vineyeards with a finish atop the tricky, irregular climb of Mont Brouilly, a short effort to keep the GC grouped before the mountains. Stage 6 features plenty of climbing late in the race before the tough Mur de Fayence, the same used in 2014. Stage 7 is the Queen Stage with the Col de la Couillole summit finish, billed as the highest ever finish seen in Paris-Nice, high for much but not physiologically significant. Instead the importance is surely the length of the climb: 15km at a steady 7-8%. That’s a very long effort for March and it comes after sustained climbing before. Finally Stage 8 is the traditional Nice-Nice stage with just 115km to encourage last day raids.
How’s Richie Porte‘s form? On paper he’s the prototype rider with a strong team to protect him in the crosswinds, he’s handy in the time trial and should be punchy for the mountains. He’s won the race twice already too. But his form is the big question mark, he hasn’t raced since the season’s Australian starter in January. His team say he’s in “great shape” which bodes well for his chances and certainly stakes a claim before a pedal has been turned.
Alberto Contador needs the win. He’s been bubbling with form so far but not had a win this season, the story of his Paris-Nice last year too when he enlivened the race last year but ultimately ennobled Geraint Thomas’s win. Just last weekend he and Nairo Quintana marked each other out of contention in Abu Dhabi. His team is split with half around him and half around John Degenkolb but each should have enough support and the classics contingent is always useful on the opening stages in case of crosswinds. Contador’s arguably had better results against the clock than uphill in recent times and the Mont Brouilly course suits him and he should be dependable on the climbs.
Romain Bardet is the local hope and Paris-Nice has been his stated early-season goal. Only the best laid plans often go awry, symbolised by his ride in the Tour of Oman when the race crossed the habitual wadi like it does almost every year but this time there was a crash and Bardet fell and it would dent his chances on the Jebel Ahkdar summit finish moments later. He didn’t look ideal in Abu Dhabi either. Paris-Nice has always been the goal though so previous events count as training, talking of which he’s been training on the Col de la Couillole. His biggest wins have been built on audacious downhill raids so at first sight the Mont Brouilly TT and the long uphill finish on the Couillole won’t suit but he can hang with the best climbers when it’s needed. Ag2r La Mondiale also bring Pierre Latour who is still serving his stage racing apprenticeship, one lesson will be to avoid unnecessary losses on the opening stages if the wind gets up.
Ilnur Zakarin is in form after his second place in the Abu Dhabi Tour and returns to a race where he won a stage last year. Katusha come with a classics squad built around Alexander Kristoff but “Zaka” has two climbers to help and this should be enough. He’s useful in hilly time trials and is climbing very well, his lanky build belies an explosive kick on the climbs. A win seems a big ask but a podium is quite possible.
Team Sky don’t looking as solid as usual and that’s before we look at their Paris-Nice roster. Pre-race pick Wout Poels is out with a knee injury and in comes Kenny Elissonde which leaves Sergio Henao as the race leader. He’s just won the Colombian championships and was very strong in Paris-Nice last year in the service of Geraint Thomas. Now is a rare opportunity for him to enjoy team leadership and he’ll have to compensate a likely time trial loss with a big bold attack on the Col de la Couillole.
Warren Barguil needs a win, since those two stage wins in the 2013 Vuelta he’s not lifted his arms in the air since. Perhaps this is self-perpetuating? He’s often seen attacking early on a final climb, too early. The wins will surely come and he could be close next week, his third place overall in the Tour de Suisse showed just what he can do. 21 year old climber Sam Oomen is one to watch, especially to see if he can improve his time trialling and maybe land a top-10 by Nice.
Ion Izagirre is one of the few one week stage race specialists around. It’s a valuable niche even if it doesn’t bring star status and he’d overshadowed by team mates Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. Now he’s been out of his Movistar contract by Bahrein-Merida in their need for points he’ll now be expected to deliver. He’s often been good in Paris-Nice, he was fifth last year and you sense he’d settle for a podium finish.
Julian Alaphilippe is the curiosity. He’s shown at times he can match the best in the mountains but remains a safer pick for punchier stages with sharper hills. So a stage win in Fayence or Nice rather than the yellow jersey seems more likely. Dan Martin could do well here too as he shown good form in the Algarve. He’s relatively weak in the time trials but at least irregular slopes Mont Brouilly are perfect for him.
Who can stop Alejandro Valverde? “WADA” shouts the heckler but it’s no longer 2010 and now a virus has ruled him out and it’s it leaves a team of Movistar orphans. They’re strong but without an obvious leader as Winner Anacona, Gorka Izagirre and Herrada brothers could all have their day on a stage, especially Jesus Herrada (pictured).
Steven Kruijswijk rides. Sometimes Giro contenders appear in form by March but not “The Coathanger” who has typically kept a low profile until May each year and was appropriately quiet last week in Abu Dhabi.
Simon Yates is promising on paper but has only raced once this year with 137th overall in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana so there’s little to go on besides his reputation. He’s handy for uphill finishes and the time bonuses if he’s in form.
If you added all of the VO2 Max scores of the Cannondale-Drapac team, well it’d come to a very big number. But add the wins? That’s small and there’s the problem, the alchemy of turning promise and talent into results. One way is to use their strength in numbers and also their status, to attack earlier than the main challengers and hope their status awards them more room. Joe Dombrowski looks particularly suited to the Col de la Couillole but is likely to suffer in the time trial.
|Alberto Contador, Ilnur Zakarin|
|Sergio Henao, Romain Bardet|
|Ion Izaguirre, Julien Alaphilippe|
Of course the race isn’t just the GC and there will be daily previews here to weigh up the chances of the sprinters and stage poachers. We’ll see Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff, André Greipel, John Degenkolb, Dylan Groenewegen, Arnaud Démare, Bryan Coquard, Michael Matthews, Sam Bennett, Ben Swift, Nacer Bouhanni, Dan McClay and Magnus Cort Nielsen just to name a lucky 13 sprinters.
TV: it’s on TV and normally the same channel you’d watch the Tour de France. The timing varies along the way, some days at 4.30pm CET, sometimes 5.40pm so check the race website or the daily previews here.
Weather: the long-range forecast indicates a stormy weekend before crosswinds and showers early next week and then warming up with sunshine on the Côte d’Azur.