Tirreno-Adriatico’s got the star factor with the “fantastic four” of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana leading the charge in Italy. The focus on four is obvious but the field is deeper with Joaquim Rodriguez, Rigoberto Uran and Thibaut Pinot who have all have stood on the podium of a grand tour.
All this makes Paris-Nice look secondary, two races equal in UCI label alone. Yet everyone wins as we get to see a rare clash in Italy before riders reconvene for the Tour de France while Paris-Nice offers a sweep of riders the chance to finally win the major stage race they need. If Froome or Contador rode to Nice the result could be just another line on an already long palmarès but for the likes of Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky and Wilco Kelderman the yellow jersey in Nice is an important conquest.
To judge the contenders let’s understand the course. There will be daily previews but here’s the outline:
- a near flat 6.7km prologue and the uphill 9.5km Col d’Eze epilogue
- Stages 1, 2, 3 and 5 are flat for the sprinters but exposed to the wind
- Stage 4 has some climbs to soften the field before the set-piece “summit finish” on the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, 10km at 6.7%
- Stage 6 is hilly, featuring a series of steady climbs, a chance to pick off a race leader if their team is weak
- There are time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds for the road race stages
It’s a classic format compared to last year’s experiment which avoided time trials and summit finishes. Our prototype winner has to be an all-rounder to turn the 55T chainring in the prologue then spin the inner ring on the summit finish plus they need a solid team to shepherd them on the windy stages.
Who is leading Team Sky? Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas both bring options for the overall win. On paper Porte might be the better climber and time trialler; in reality Thomas was better in the recent Volta ao Algarve. The difference here is the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret, it’s uphill for over 20 minutes and this tilts it to Porte, a previous winner in 2013. Bradley Wiggins rides in support, he’s too heavy for the GC but watch for the time trials.
I’m interested to see what Michał Kwiatkowski can do. He’s among the best time triallists on a good day and can sprint well for time bonuses. But can he cope with the summit finish? I think so, it’s one climb rather than a day-long jaunt across the Alps and not high altitude either. Tony Martin has won this race before but the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret could be a heavy cross to bear and his 2011 win featured a long time trial and didn’t have a summit finish, it was a route for rouleurs.
Wilco Kelderman suffered from a crash in Andalucia but bounced back to finish sixth on each of the uphill finishes. He’ll like the long climb here even better. A win? There’s a lot of competition but he’s got a strong support on the flat and help uphill in Steven Kruikswijk and George Bennett.
Tejay van Garderen will be extra-motivated for the win, he thought he had it all lined up in Oman only for Rafael Vall’s to beat him on Green Mountain and then the next day’s stage with the hilly laps was neutralised. Time to make amends. He’s an expert in the time trials and as we saw in Oman this year and Catalonia last year he’s not afraid to stand on the pedals and attack to win. Rohan Dennis will be interesting to watch, the course is made for him but last weekend’s Ardèche racing suggests a dip in form after his Hour bid.
Rafał Majka leads Tinkoff-Saxo. He’s seen as a climber given his small build and polka-dot triumph in the Tour de France but he can time trial too, he defended a slim lead in the Tour of Poland in the final stage against the clock and was with the best in the Giro’s Barollo TT stage too. Good enough to win the race? I’m not sure but this is a rare chance for him to win a stage race because he’ll be on duty for Contador a lot. Going by the Tour of Oman only he seems in good shape.
Andrew Talansky lost the race in 2013, going solo on the Montagne de Lure wearing the yellow jersey only to pay for his aggression and get beaten by Porte. Now he’s older, wiser and ready for more. For some he won the 2014 Dauphiné after profiting from a wild final stage but look closer and he was just seconds behind Contador and Froome in the time trials and on the climbs, he was quick in the prologue then and strong the long and steep climb to the Emosson Dam. This is his first race of 2015 so we don’t have much to go on for form but expect him to be strong.
Romain Bardet has made this his first serious target but I think he’s being demanding with himself as the course isn’t ides. He was the “best of the rest” in Andalucia but will find the time trials awkward, he paid for private wind tunnel sessions in Britain over the winter after discovering he was producing as many watts as van Garderen in the Tour de France’s final time trial only to surrender over two minutes. Yet the Andalucia time trial saw him lose time and he’d prefer if the “summit finish” was steeper. Team mate Jean-Christophe Péraud is behind with his form but could hold out for a result. Both will have to watch the opening stages if crosswinds blow the race apart, this is where Johan Vansummeren will prove his value.
Rui Costa came close last year but time trialling could be his downfall, he’ll lose some time to rivals here. Certainly top-10 material but a win seems unlikely. He’s got Rafael Valls for company, still hard to tip him despite him clearly being the strongest on Oman.
Katusha’s Simon Špilak usually pops up in Paris-Nice, 4th in 2012, 6th last year and 8th in 2013, perhaps not a winner but worth a punt for your fantasy team while team mate Tiago Machado seems to thrive in one week stage races. Romain Sicard is a good rider only his pro debut flopped, he’s still a rough diamond who could do with better coaching and could feature in the second half of the race but don’t expect anything in the time trials.
Fabio Aru rides. As this is his first race of the year expectations are set low and the goal is the Giro. We can imagine various scripts, such as the tale of pride as he overcomes the negative pressure affecting his Astana team but similarly this added pressure could sap him but even if he was in top shape the course might not be hard enough, the prologue is too intense, the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret not selective enough. Instead let’s turn to Luis-Leon Sanchez who’s done well in this race before and was top-10 in the Algarve; Rein Taaramäe could place high and Jacob Fuglsang brings more.
Warren Barguil wanted to test his form in Oman but came up short, racing on home soil might suit him more and like Majka this is a story of seizing his opportunities and the time trials don’t suit, the inverse story for Giant-Alpecin team mate Tom Dumoulin who is good on short climbs but might find Stage 4’s longer effort too much.
Movistar bring Beñat Intxausti who’s in form but it’s hard to imagine a win. Keep an eye on young prospects Ruben Fernandez and Dayer Quintana, the younger brother of Nairo should land a win this year. Tim Wellens has this as his first major goal of the year but can you see the Lotto-Soudal rider getting the better of the names above? No, so it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on while Thomas de Gendt has done well here before. Simon Yates is an outsider pick, we’ll see how he fares because he’s been ill, he can climb very well but I’m not sure about the TTs and Bretagne-Séché’s Argentine Sepulveda is a young prospect unlike others listed above, both come without much pressure to perform. Last but not least Sylvain Chavanel is in good form and even climbing well but again, a win seems improbable.
|Tejay van Garderen|
|Wilco Kelderman, Richie Porte|
|Andrew Talansky, Michał Kwiatkowski|
|Rafał Majka, Romain Bardet, Geraint Thomas, Rui Costa|
|Intxausti, L-L Sanchez, Aru, Martin, Špilak, Valls|
Different ratings but it’s hard to establish a hierarchy. Van Garderen is the prime pick but only just and the level of riders looks very close, for there’s not much between van Garderen and Kwiatkowski and seeing how the top-5 picks tackle the race should make for good viewing.
Kelderman, Kwiatkowski, Bardet and Aru are all potential winners and eligible for the best young rider jersey while Majka, Talansky, van Garderen and Thomas are on a long list of names that have been tipped as prospects for the future. There’s only so long they can trade on hope: success in Nice is a good way to deliver a return. Meanwhile Richie Porte is the wrong side of 30 but needs a win here too to get back on the stage race route after things fell apart last year.