The first major stage race of the year starts on Sunday. This edition sees new stage race contenders like Tom Dumoulin and Geraint Thomas up against old timers like Richie Porte and Alberto Contador over a mixed route with the old and the new, like Mont Ventoux and gravel roads.
A classic route with that tracks the Loire and then the Rhone rivers. The race begins outside Paris with a 6.1km prologue and then the early sprint stages across France’s cereal basin with the potential for action if the wind gets up. If it doesn’t the organisers have introduced some gravel roads for Stage 1 which are neither terrifying nor technical but the approach could well shake things up.
Stage 3 features Mont Brouilly, no mountain but a nasty finish, the rival of anything in the Ardennes with its irregular, narrow road and steep sectors. Stage 5 is the Mont Ventoux stage but they don’t go all the way to the top and the real difficulty of the day could be the wind because the approach to Salon-de-Provence is from west to east, perpendicular to the howling Mistral wind. Stage 6 is the Madonne d’Utelle summit finish, a long climb at 15km and scenic but more often 5-6% on the way up so wheelsucking pays but who will be left after a long day with not many flat roads during the stage. The final stage in the hills behind Nice is no victory parade as it features a lot of hills and twisty descents.
All stages have time bonuses of 3-2-1 seconds at the intermediate sprints and 10-6-4 seconds on the finish line.
Richie Porte stood atop the podium last year and came to the race after winning the mountain stage in the Volta ao Algarve. Now his form seems lower, he was off the pace in the Tour of Oman and began blaming jet lag before it turned out to be piriformis syndrome. A team press release quotes him as saying the week is “an opportunity to get some more race days in the legs”. Still for all the reasons to doubt him he’s won this race twice and is very punchy on short climbs and week-long races.
Geraint Thomas is the prime pick for several reasons. He’s in form having just won the Volta ao Algarve where he put over 30 seconds into Alberto Contador in the
11km 18km time trial. The course suits him with an opening time trial and a steady summit finish to Utelle. Mont Brouilly’s steep pitches are where he dropped the field to bridge across to eventual stage winner T-J Slagter in 2014. He’s been good at this race too and for all the classics contender narrative last year he finished this race fifth overall while helping then team mate Richie Porte to win. So if he was that good as a helper with an eye on the classics, it’s not hard to imagine the improvement if he’s been working on his climbing. He’s got a strong team behind him including Sergio Henao who could place well too. A weak point? Well things don’t go to plan, he’s had a few unfortunate crashes in the past and team leadership will be new.
There’s an air of the valedictory tour as Alberto Contador returns to a race that has been important to him in past years, especially as he first made an impression via the prologue stages of this race. His recent stage win in the Volta ao Algarve shows the form is there too and he comes with a very strong team and if he loses time to Thomas he’ll have to make it up by going on the attack and trying to break Team Sky. Rafał Majka is in good shape too and returns to correct a missed race last year when he was given team leadership and floundered. Contador seems the stronger pick and the more suited to the route but being able to use the 1-2 is a good ploy.
An air of novelty floats over Tom Dumoulin. The story goes that he went into Spain as a time triallist and came out a stage racer, even a grand tour contender. A nice tale but he finished third in the Tour de Suisse last year too. This year’s route suits him and he’s in good shape with fourth place in the Tour of Oman which shows his progress is continuing. Perhaps he’ll miss Warren Barguil but new signing Laurens Ten Dam is there for the mountains and Giant-Alpecin’s solid sprint train is sans sprinter so Dumoulin’s got some quality bodyguards for the flat stages.
Romain Bardet was second in Oman and twice in the top-10 over last weekend’s Boucles Drôme-Ardèche. A good start which he says partly owes itself to his first ever full-time winter now that he’s completed his masters degree. But let’s construct the thesis of his victory? He’s making improvements in the wind tunnel but will lose time in the prologue and the sprint stages are a worry if the wind gets up. He’ll like Mont Brouilly the climb above Utelle but perhaps he’ll wait for the very last day with its twisty descents to gain time? Easier said than done. Alexis Vuillermoz is a candidate for Mont Brouilly and co-leader of Ag2r La Mondiale. Young riders Pierre Latour and Alexis Gougeard are worth watching.
The years go by and the story remains the same: Andrew Talansky broke through in this race in 2013 and can excel in week-long stage races but needs to deliver a result; he was off the pace in the recent Tour de La Provence so that result may not happen here. Meanwhile Pierre Rolland has arrived with a stream of stories denouncing his retro training method and promising a new Rolland. In fact Rolland’s been around so long he was hailed for winning his first ever race as a pro before fading, then he was praised for taking the mountains jersey in the Dauphiné before fading, praised for his Alpe d’Huez stage win before fading, praised for his Giro fourth place before fading. There could be a pattern here. On this count alone the new “Cannondale Rolland” is not Rolland 2.0 but Rolland 5.0. Still it is a big change and we’ll see if he’s an altitude responder given he’s just come of a long stay on Mount Teide. Watch to see if he can stay out of trouble on the early stages.
Wilco Kelderman has been tipped for so long but yet to deliver the big win; still he’s in form and could place highly it’s just hard to imagine him landing a stage win or overall glory. Steven Kruijswijk, the human coathanger, seems in steady form but not race winning strength and seems to be one of those tonic rider who can stay standing when others fall away in third week of a grand tour.
Simon Špilak is always the stealthy pick. The stoic short stage race specialist tends to go better in the cold so this early March race is ideal. But can he win stages and take time bonuses? Perhaps not but the stoic rider could pad out your fantasy team as he’s often underpriced. The same for team mates Ilnur Zakarin and Rein Taaramäe. Zakarin is aiming for the Giro this year but there’s not long to go and he’s already had some steady results, extrapolate and he can make the top-10 or even more.
Rui Costa was fifth in Oman. He’s a good rider but a rare winner, in the last two years he’s only been able to make three victory salutes and one of those was in his national championships. In this week of Oscars, he’s often a supporting actor rarely the lead role, Rui Co-star if you like. He’s joined on the set by Louis Meintjes, form unknown and better suited to a more mountainous stage race.
Tony Gallopin was last year’s surprise after he took the yellow jersey off Michał Kwiatkowski with one stage to go. Seen as a puncheur he was hanging with the best in the mountains. It’s the price to pay for being a Frenchman, judged through the lens of the Tour de France rather than being allowed to fill other niches. Still the progress is good, he began his career as a sprinter at Cofidis who’d poach wins on hilly days and in last summer’s Tour de France he came out of the Pyrenees still in the top-10 overall before folding the in the Alps. This week’s shorter race and gentler climbs suit. The team will be riding in Lotto-FixAll kit for a change and Eneco Tour winner Tim Wellens will offer good support.
Ion Izaguirre is becoming the stage racer Movistar hoped he’d become. He won the Tour of Poland last year and was third in the Tour of the Basque Country. He not be a star but these are big lines on any stage racer’s CV. Plus he’s just finished second in the Volta ao Algarve. He’s backed by a good team with brother Gorka plus Rubén Fernández and Jesús Herrada.
Luis-Leon Sanchez has done well here before but crashed out of the Volta ao Algarve. This means slim results to go on but until the slide he was leading the race so if he’s recovered he could be up there. Astana usually bring a strong team but Luisle looks like their only real leader for this race.
Simon Yates leads Orica-Greenedge’s GC hopes and was active in the last weekend’s Boucles Drôme-Ardèche races, plus he can sprint well from a small group which counts for the time bonuses. Finally IAM Cycling’s Jérôme Coppel is in excellent form right now and cope well with measured efforts; a win seems hard to imagine though.
|Tom Dumoulin, Richie Porte
|Tony Gallopin, Romain Bardet, Rui Costa, Ion Izaguirre, Simon Špilak, Ilnur Zakarin, L-L Sanchez
|Vuillermoz, Rolland, Henao, Kelderman, Coppel, Yates, Taraamäe, Talansky
Of course the race isn’t just the GC and there will be daily previews to weigh up the chances of the sprinters. We’ll see Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff in action with André Greipel and Nacer Bouhanni there too.
TV: it’s on TV and normally on the same channel you’d watch the Tour de France. The timing varies alot during the week so check the race website or the daily previews here. Look out for the finishes that, for the first time here, will have the same ultra high speed camera used in the Tour de France to have more detailed slow motion.
Weather: the long-range forecast says typical Paris-Nice weather with cold start with possible showers and single digit temperatures until the race nears the Côte d’Azur.