Most observers expect Alberto Contador to ride away with the victory at the 67th Paris-Nice, which begins Sunday with a time trial in Amilly.
The Spanish climber, who won Paris-Nice as part of his breakout 2007 season, is the five-star favorite following his victory at the Volta ao Algarve to start his season last month.
But expectations aside, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” is known to deliver a surprise or two in what’s the season’s first major stage race.
There will be plenty of challengers nipping at Astana’s heels among the 20-team field.
Toni Colom, who beat Contador at a mountaintop sprint finish in Portugal, leads the ambitious Katusha squad. Luís León Sánchez is already on good form and will be supported by Caisse d’Epargne while Saxo Bank brings a strong team anchored by Fränk Schleck.
“The way the route is this year, we have every reason to turn up our level of ambition,” said Saxo Bank sport director Kim Andersen. “The final three or four days will be in the mountains and this is where Fränk (Schleck) comes in fresh from his queen stage victory in California. In fact, the route seems tailor made for him.”
Defending champion Davide Rebellin isn’t back as his Diquigiovanni squad will race Tirreno-Adriatico instead.
That opens the door for last year’s runner-up, Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r), already a winner of a stage at the Tour of California last month. Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) will be two young guns looking to challenge for the overall.
Australian Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) can be counted on to try to win a stage, but by his own admission, it’s a little too early to be in top shape with July’s Tour de France beckoning as his top goal for the year.
David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream) restructured his racing calendar, skipping the Tour of California where he finished second in 2008, and picks Paris-Nice as his first major goal of the season.
“Last year I was a bit stuffed coming back from California before Paris-Nice, so that’s the goal,” he said. “Last year, I just came out of Qatar and California too tired, so we pushed it back for me by about one month.”
Millar and new Garmin teammate Bradley Wiggins will be among the favorites for Sunday’s TT while Christian Vande Velde makes his European debut at Paris-Nice.
There will be plenty of sprinters bumping shoulders in what looks like two stages laid out for a mass gallop.
Gert Steegmans (Katusha), hot-hand Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo), Francesco Cicchi (Liquigas), Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel) all will want a Paris-Nice victory on their palmares.
Stage-hunters always have chances at Paris-Nice, with the likes of Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), who won a stage last year, Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), Nicholas Roche (Ag2r) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) always itching to give it a run.
The French always step up in what’s considered by many the most prestigious stage race in France, second only to the Tour de France.
Jerôme Pineau and Sylvain Chavanel will be out to confirm their move to Quick Step while the likes of Sandy Casar (FDJeux), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Christophe Moreau (Agritubel), Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland (Bouygues) can be expected to duke it out for “best French rider” honors.
Ventoux’s ‘little sister’
The 67th edition of Paris-Nice breaks with recent tradition as the route largely steers clear of the sometimes-snowbound Massif Central and takes in new climbs like the Montagne de Lure deep in the heart of France’s haute-Provence.
Harsh weather has prompted route modifications the past few editions at Paris-Nice and it seems race organizers are searching out new roads that have a better chance to be clear of late-winter snows.
Instead of starting with a prologue, the race will debut with a 9.3km individual time trial in Amilly, about one hour south of Paris. The relatively flat course and longer distance could open up decisive differences among the GC contenders.
Stages two and three push south across the open, wide-swept fields toward Vichy where strong winds can bust up the peloton and are ideally suited for the sprinters in the pack.
Stage four into Saint-Etienne avoids some of the harder, higher-elevation climbs in the area, but features the Cat. 3 Cote de Rochetaillée with 6.8km that should deliver some late-race attacks from stage-hunters.
Stage five to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc skirts the eastern edge of the Massif Central, tackling seven rated climbs in the first half of the stage, including the Cat. 1 Col de Benas. A finishing circuit around Vallon should provide plenty of road to reel in attacking riders.
Things will heat up in the six-climb, 182.5km sixth stage that ends atop the Montagne de Lure, dubbed the “little sister of Mont Ventoux.”
It’s the first time the climb will be used in a major international race. With an average grade of 6.6 percent up 13.8km, it should prove the decisive moment of the 67th Paris-Nice.
The 10-climb seventh stage from Manosque to Fayence bypasses the traditional finish into Cannes. The rollercoaster profile is a head-banger’s ball features four second-category and one first-category climbs and ends with a third category climb to the finish line.
The race returns to script for the finale on the same finishing circuit used the past several editions of the race over the first-category summits at La Turbie and Col d’Eze before a nervous descent to the finishing straight on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
2009 Paris-Nice• Stage 1, March 8: Amilly-Amilly, 9.3km (ITT)
• Stage 2, March 9: Saint-Brisson-sur-Loire to La Chapelle-Saint-Ursin, 195.5km
• Stage 3, March 10: Orval to Vichy, 175km
• Stage 4, March 11: Vichy to Saint-Étienne, 171.5km
• Stage 5, March 12: Annonay to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, 204km
• Stage 6, March 13: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to La Montagne de Lure, 182.km
• Stage 7, March 14: Manosque to Fayence, 191km
• Stage 8, March 15: Nice-Nice, 119km
• Total: 1,250km
Team for the 67th Paris-Nice(expected starters)
• Milram (Fothen, Knees)
• Quick Step (S. Chavanel, Barredo)
• Silence-Lotto (Evans, Gilbert)
• Saxo Bank (A. Schleck, Voigt)
• Caisse d’Epargne (Pereiro, LL Sánchez)
• Euskaltel-Euskadi (S. Sánchez)
• Garmin-Slipstream (Millar, Wiggins)
• Columbia-High Road (Burghardt)
• Bbox Bouygues Telecom (Rolland)
• Cofidis (Auger, Dumoulin)
• Française Des Jeux (Casar, Ladagnous)
• Ag2r (Nocentini, Dessel)
• Agritubel (Moreau, Feillu)
• Lampre (Caucchioli)
• Liquigas (Kreuziger, Chicchi)
• Astana (Contador, Popovych)
• Rabobank (Flecha, Posthuma)
• Skil-Shimano (Hupond)
• Katusha (Steegmans)
• Cervélo Test Team (Florencio)