A bicycle race is an exercise in hierarchy. We start with riders on equal time and by the end they are arranged in order. Tests like summit finishes and time trials help impose a reasonable order and over the years we’ve got used to seeing teams controlling events in stage races and relying on set piece moments to define the race, a “train” imposing itself of the race.
Only this year’s Paris-Nice has none of these cues, the route is a blank canvas where riders will have to take risks to win.
Not that the race becomes a free-for-all. Teamwork will be essential from the early stages in order to protect a rider in case the bunch splits in the crosswinds, a regular feature of the opening stages. The same for defending the lead, the ability to shut down rival moves counts for plenty in a race that could be decided by seconds. But it makes picking a winner hard work. You review the selective stages and then eliminate unsuitable riders and discount the remainder to work out who will be standing on the podium. It’s a much harder exercise this year but that’s only because the race promises to be more exciting.
Vincenzo Nibali is one the most versatile riders around. A grand tour specialist, he’s also in the mix for Milan-Sanremo and the Ardennes and relies on aggressive racing rather than waiting for the time trial to overhaul his rivals. This is the perfect pedigree but he’s still easing himself into the season and new fatherhood means some sleepless nights on top. But he’s got a few days to ease into the race and should come good for the final weekend. If not he comes with a very strong team, Jacob Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert and Lieuwe Westra are all, on paper, capable of winning this race too but none have yet to impress so far this season.
Team Sky have won this race twice now and Edvald Boasson Hagen would be more highly tipped were it not for the regular disappointment in recent years. He can climb and he can sprint so he should be winning stages and taking time bonuses but he’s just been an irregular winner. Instead their leader is Geraint Thomas who has a fast finish and has shown climbing ability, not high altitude aptitude but enough for this race based on his form in the Ruta Del Sol, better still for him, he’s got a good sprint and so can take time bonuses. Richie Porte is a last minute switch to Tirreno-Adriatico.
Ag2r La Mondiale have a strong team – there’s a phrase I’ve not typed before – Romain Bardet should feature. He won last weekend’s Valence Drôme Classic and climbed well in the Tour of Oman. Can he concentrate every day to avoid being caught out by the crosswinds? Yes in theory as he’s a clever rider and hopefully he learned the lesson of being dropped during last year’s crosswind-ravaged Stage 13 of the Tour de France. Carlos Betancur is winning too and the course is ideal for him, remember he beat John Degenkolb the other day. Mickaël Cherel’s aggression has to pay off some day. Watch Max Bouet too who has a big engine but has yet to land the big result.
Another team off to a great start is Lampre-Merida and they bring new team captain Rui Costa who will find the course perfect for him. He’s supposed to be going for stage race success this year and this course is the ideal bridge between his one day past and his stage race future. He’s backed by Przemyslaw Niemiec, another suitable rider but he’s had a quiet start to the season.
BMC Racing have Tejay van Garderen and he probably needs to win the race more than everyone else. His win in the Tour of California was one thing but in order to lead the team in the Tour de France later this year the 25 year old needs more leadership experience. On an traditional Paris-Nice course he’d be a top pick for the podium, we saw how well he was climbing in the Tour of Oman and he’s excellent in the time trials. But he’s not a fast finisher for the time bonuses. Team mate Steve Cummings another to watch, he won the Tour Med recently and can chase time bonuses but as a valuable helper he could be on team duty. The whole team is impressive with Taylor Phinney, Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet.
Belkin bring Wilco Kelderman and Lars Petter Nordhaug. The first has the makings of a promising stage race, the second has thrived on uphill finishes. But neither has got any results this year, excepting a stealthy fifth overall in the Volta ao Algarve for Kelderman. New recruit Jonathan Hivert stands out as the odd Frenchman but he’s a good finisseur and has been in the top-10 on GC before.
FDJ come with a sprint team but there’s Arthur Vichot supported by Arnold Jeannesson. Vichot’s a punchy rider who should thrive on the course and could even benefit from his team’s sprint train to ride out the crosswinds. It’s hard to see him win but a podium or top-10 is possible.
OPQS come with a storming classics team packed with the kind of riders who can tear a phonebook in half before shredding the bunch in a crosswind. They’ll suffer in the second half of the race with only the in-form Jan Bakelants to cope with the hillier stuff. Belgian rivals Lotto-Belisol come with a team that could get sand kicked in its face. But if they’re weaker, they’ve got options for breakaways and Tony Gallopin is their GC bet, he’s a fast-finisher who copes very well with short hills and could surprise but a stage win seems more possible than the overall.
There’s a similarity between the Tour Down Under and this one given the lack of big mountains and no time trial. Simon Gerrans showed he was one of the best riders for this kind of racing. But he’s had a break for racing and will be timing his peak for the Ardennes and this week could be about getting some hours on the bike. One extra clue is the sprint-heavy Orica-Greenedge team.
Among the others Garmin-Sharp’s Fabian Wegman is a regular top-10 man on hilly days but a rare winner and he’s got Tom-Jelte Slagter as back-up. Slagter won the Tour Down Under last year but the Dutchman is not flying yet, he’s only raced once this year. The Schlecks continue their Ardennes build-up and Frank was actually riding well in Oman but a puncture hit his chances so if you only scanned the results, think twice. Trek Factory Racing’s others are promising with Bob Jungels and Fabio Felline useful for a stage win and more.
Finally the French media are tipping Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling). He’s coming into form but I can’t see him winning, he’d have to do it the hard way and go for beaucoup time in the middle of the race and defend against better climbers as the race approaches Nice. He’s exceptionally strong on tough days but the race might just be too hilly for him. He’d be a popular winner and has strong support from Jérôme Pineau, Seb Reichenbach and Mathias Frank.
Prime Pick: Vincenzo Nibali but don’t bet your shirt or even your handkerchief on it
White Horse: Rui Costa in his white shorts and rainbow stripes
Draught Horse: he might be overweight but Carlos Betancur can sprint and climb and has a good team
Dark Horse: Simon Spilak, I haven’t even mentioned him above
With hindsight: enough horsing about, Edvald Boasson Hagen can climb and sprint and is backed by a strong team and it was about time he won. If not him then Geraint Thomas.
It might be an open stage race but most riders know they can’t win the yellow jersey. Several teams come with their sprinters and stages 1,2,3 and 5 offer a high probability of a bunch sprint. So who to watch?
Belkin’s Moreno Hofland is in form and should be duelling with FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni and Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb. I see these three as the prime sprint picks but it’ll be interesting to see if Tom Boonen contests the sprints, he might be able to win but will he risk it? The same for Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff but I think he will be sprinting. Europcar’s Bryan Coquard is still a neo-pro and an apprentice but could easily win, this race is the perfect test of the team’s ambitions to race in the World Tour. BMC come with Greg Van Avermaet. It’ll be interesting to see Orica-Greenedge with Matthew Goss, once a big rival to Mark Cavendish these days you sense if he tried to buy a race the deal would go wrong but he’s thrived in this race before and with a new training plan it’d be great to see him back to winning ways. He’s also got fast-finisher Jens Keukeleire and Michael Matthews who is useful for the hillier days like Stage 5, the same for OPQS’s Gianni Meersman.
A few extra notes. Katusha’s Simon Špilak seems to win when the weather is bad, the week looks sunny for now; team mate Igor Silin was fifth on Mont Faron in the Le Tour Med and could surprise this week. Bretagne-Séché have had a decent start to the season with Florian Vachon and Eduard Sepulveda, watch to see if they can show at a higher level because they’re a wildcard invite for the Tour too. Thomas Voeckler is racing and was active in last Sunday’s Valence Drôme Classic but not able to make the final selection, recovery from his broken collarbone needs more time which must have him pulling even more face given the course is seems designed for his guerilla racing.
They will also be daily previews for every stage. Until then if you want more on the race the course, the TV timings, the jerseys, info on the time bonuses and more there’s a permanent page at inrng.com/paris-nice which can be easily reached during the race via the navigation bar at the top of the page: