Alberto Contador has made it pretty clear: he wants to win Paris-Nice to make up for the lone blot on his otherwise stellar 2009 season.
Contador was leading last year’s “Race to the Sun” when he suffered a bonk a day after taking a commanding 1:13 lead in the mountainous sixth stage, opening the door for Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) to eventually win the overall.
That “bonk” prompted Lance Armstrong’s famous Twitter reply that Contador still had “a lot to learn” and laid bare the tension between the two former Astana teammates.
Fresh off winning the Volta ao Algarve in his season debut last month, Contador hasn’t forgotten last year’s misstep and vows to claim the season’s first major stage race as the 68th Paris-Nice begins Sunday.
But in typical Contador fashion, he has publicly downplayed last year’s problems and said he’s not racing Paris-Nice fueled by revenge.
“I do not want revenge. That was a very valuable experience that helped me to know that nothing can be neglected and must be watching the race with coldness. It cost me the victory in 2009, yes, but I had a great experience,” Contador said Friday. “Of course, with the team we will try to fight for victory, being in the fight, although it is very difficult to win and there are very strong riders that are better than me, like Luís León and Valverde, who have more days of competition. The goal, in any case is to be there.”
Contador brings an untested Astana team, sans Armstrong, who switched to RadioShack and is racing this week at Vuelta a Murcia in Spain.
The eight-day Paris-Nice provides an excellent opportunity for the defending Tour de France champion to gain more confidence in his reloaded Astana team. The route favors Contador on paper, with a similar opening prologue to what he won last year and a return to the Mende summit finish, where he won in 2007 en route to securing the overall crown.
Contador’s hoping to repeat at Mende and then put his Astana troops to the challenge of controlling the race all the way to Nice, something they’ll need to be able to do over three weeks if he hopes to win again on French roads come July.
“It is a good course, but the difference is that the climb finish, in Mende, is short and very explosive. We did it in 2007 and the differences were minimal,” Contador said. “This year’s victory will be decided by a few seconds and probably the bonuses will be important. The last three days of mountain will be very difficult to control, as always in Paris-Nice. The podium will be decided by very little differences.”
Standing in his way is growing rival Sánchez, who beat Contador in the final-day time trial at the Volta ao Algarve (when Contador raced on a new bike after the UCI banned his Specialized’s Shiv time trial frame 36 hours before the race).
Sánchez will start with the No. 1 bib, but only decided last week to race Paris-Nice after toying with the idea of racing Tirreno-Adriatico instead. Joining him at Caisse d’Epargne will be Alejandro Valverde, who won Tour Méditerranean last month.
“I don’t know yet who will be the designated leader. That will depend on the fitness levels as well as how the race progresses over the first few days,” said Caisse d’Epargne sport director Yvon Ledanois. “One thing is certain, they are both capable of winning this race on paper. They have a good relationship and there won’t be any problem between them.”
Of course, the season’s first “real” stage race is not just a two-man fight.
There’s also a strong North American contingent. Ted King and Dominique Rollin will start for Cervélo. Svein Tuft, Christian Meier, Tom Danielson, Thomas Peterson and Christian Vande Velde will be representing Garmin-Transitions while Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner line up for RadioShack. Craig Lewis will be looking to make a strong showing for HTC-Columbia.
Other top Spanish riders include reigning Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskaltel), who looked solid at the Volta ao Algarve last month and is looking to build early-season form ahead of the spring classics. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), a former stage winner at Paris-Nice, is also on the hunt for a big result.
Leading the French will be Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), who finally earned a podium spot last year with third and won the green points jersey.
“The format of the race suits me, because there are no high mountain climbs, so I’m often able to keep up with the best,” Chavanel said. “Overall, it’s a route that’s well suited for me. So, I had better be alert and keep my concentration.”
Chavanel says he sees Contador at a higher level than anyone else this early in the season.
“It’s sure that on a climb like the one in Mende, I can’t see anyone beating Contador. He can say that he’s carrying two kilos too much at the moment, and others might think his team has been weakened by departures, but that’s not the impression I got on the Tour of Algarve. I found that he was in good shape, with a robust team backing him up and able to maintain the tempo right throughout,” he said. “However, apart from the finish in Mende, I believe that on the rest of the route, there aren’t many places where he can open up gaps.”
There’s always a dog-fight between the French to be the top national rider at Paris-Nice. Other French riders to watch include Thomas Voeckler (Bbox), Cyril Dessel (Ag2r-La Mondiale), sprinter Jimmy Casper (Saur Sojasun), Sandy Casar (FDJeux), Rémi Pauriol (Cofidis) and newcomers Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil) and Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
Other top European riders include Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Simon Gerrans (Team Sky), Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Frank Schleck, Jens Voigt and JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank).
Something for everyone
Paris-Nice typically offers a little bit to everyone without favoring any one type of specialist. Without any major climbs or long individual time trials, the racing typically remains tight all the way to the final-day showdown up Col d’Eze above Nice.
The route opens not quite in Paris in Monfort-l’Amaury, a small village 40km southwest of the City of Light. The undulating prologue course opens with a stiff, third-category climb and ends with a long flat section ideal for the pure time trialists, but it could be hard to beat Contador if he’s on a good day.
Stages 2 pushes south onto the Loire Valley in a rolling stage that is ideally suited for the sprinters in the pack. Stage 3 carries the pack further south to Limoges in a hillier stage featuring two third-category climbs in the 50km that will surely tempt stage-hunters.
Things get interesting in the six-climb fourth stage to Aurillac, which traces the same finishing route as the 2007 French championships (won by Christophe Moreau). Three second-category climbs in the closing half of the stage, including the Cote de la Martinie with just 3km, promises for an explosive finale.
The mountain-top finish at Mende (named in honor of Laurent Jalabert) has Contador written all over it. He won here in 2007 to secure his overall victory and the short, but steep climb is ideally suited for his explosive style of climbing. The climb is only 3.1km, but with an average grade of 10 percent, it’s steep enough to cause some pain. The Tour de France returns here in July for the finale of stage 12.
The rolling stage 6 to Aix-en-Provence could see a fairly large group coming in for a sprint if a stage-hunter cannot escape the grip of the pack.
The next day’s, seven-climb trek to Tourettes-sur-Loup is the race’s longest and will provide the best chance to try to challenge whoever is in the leader’s jersey. The Cat. 1 Col de Vence (9.7km at 6.6 percent) comes after four hours of racing and should see some major attacks.
The traditional finale in Nice starts and finishes on the Promenade des Anglais along Nice’s beachfront and typically sees fine weather for the final stage. Short and explosive, the final, three-climb stage leaves no room for error and there’s often final-day shake-ups in the overall standings. Last year, Chavanel saw his second place go to Frank Schleck after he skidded out on a descent.
Stage 1 – Sunday, March 7: Montfort-l’Amaury-Montfort-l’Amaury, 8km
Stage 2 – Monday, March 8: Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines to Contres, 201.5km
Stage 3 – Tuesday, March 9: Contres to Limoges, 201km
Stage 4 – Wednesday, March 10: Saint-Junien to Aurillac, 208km
Stage 5 – Thursday, March 11: Maurs to Mende, 173.5km
Stage 6 – Friday, March 12: Pernes-les-Fontaines to Aix-en-Provence, 157km
Stage 7 – Saturday, March 13: Peynie to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, 220km
Stage 8 – Sunday, March 14: Nice-Nice, 119km