LEON, Spain (VN) — Paris-Nice offers up a challenging, classic course for the 71st edition of the “Race to the Sun,” with an eight-stage parcours revealed Thursday that includes a summit finish up Montagne de Lure and a climbing time trial on the dazzling Col d’Eze.
Despite the challenging route (March 3-10), or perhaps because of it, many of the peloton’s top names are heading to Italy instead.
Tirreno-Adriatico is winning the battle of the stars this year, with Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) all preferring Italy over France.
The season’s first matchup of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) only heightens expectation for the “Race of Two Seas.”
Paris-Nice is not without quality, with such riders as Robert Gesink (Blanco), world champion Philippe Gilbert and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), Nicholas Roche and Roman Kreuziger (Saxo), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) all expected to start.
Overlap forces riders to choose
This year, however, Tirreno-Adriatico is pulling in the stars.
Over the past several years, Paris-Nice has edged toward becoming a much more difficult race, with lumpy stages across the Massif Central and low-elevation summits in the Alpes-Maritime tilting the race away from sprinters.
The hillier parcours and typically better spring weather in Italy are factors drawing riders toward Tirreno.
The two WorldTour races overlap, a scheduling glitch that’s hard to avoid because both races want to be positioned ahead of the start of the spring classics season. Repositioning the races to be back-to-back would push Paris-Nice too far from the classics and Tirreno too close, especially to Milan-San Remo.
WorldTour teams are required to start both, so squads with deep rosters can split their squads and better their chances for success at both races.
That’s certainly the case for BMC Racing, with Evans choosing Tirreno and van Garderen and Gilbert racing Paris-Nice.
“We have two leaders for GC, so it makes sense that we do different races,” van Garderen said about splitting racing calendars with Evans. “We both have chances to win races. It’s better for the team that we race different programs.”
Some riders simply prefer one race to the other. Rodríguez, for example, shines on the short, punchy hilltop finales featured in Tirreno, twice a winner at Montelupone, while Boonen angles toward France.
“Paris-Nice has always been my favorite race before the classics,” Boonen said. “There are usually good stages for sprinters and the racing is difficult. It’s perfect going into April.”
Riders’ season priorities also influence which of the two they decide to race.
Contador, a two-time winner of Paris-Nice, is racing Tirreno in part because he’s not going to contest the Giro, yet wants to remain in good stead with RCS Sport, organizers of both the Giro and Tirreno.
Wiggins, meanwhile, is not defending his Paris-Nice title and instead racing in Tirreno because he is going to be taking on the Giro two months later.
The defending Tour champ said he’s interested in racing on Italian roads ahead of a run for the maglia rosa and also has included April’s Giro del Trentino on his schedule.
Weather is also a factor for both races, though Tirreno generally enjoys milder temperatures than Paris-Nice, where stages across the Massif Central can often be snowed out.
Schleck, who abandoned Tour Mediterranéen on Wednesday, said for this season he’s focusing on what works and, for him, that means racing Tirreno. He’s only raced Paris-Nice twice, first in 2007 and again in 2012, which he abandoned.
“I like racing in Italy in March. I prefer Tirreno because the climbs are shorter and faster, which is ideal for the classics,” he said. “I also like to race Strade Bianche. It’s one of my favorite races of the year.”
‘True start’ of European season
Paris-Nice is viewed as the traditional start of the “real” racing season and is the first major stage race of the European calendar. Its prestige as the most important French stage race behind the Tour de France usually guarantees a top draw, especially among the French teams.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said this year’s course would guarantee an exciting, down-to-the-wire GC battle.
“It’s the true start of the European racing season,” Prudhomme said Thursday. “There’s no clear favorite at the start line. With a short prologue, the tension will build across the Massif Central to the climb up Lure two days from the finish.”
The route starts with a short, 3km prologue on the outskirts of Paris before pushing south across the wind-blasted flats near the Loire Valley where echelons can be a risk.
The sprinters and opportunists will have their chances in the opening stages. A lumpy route across the Massif Central in stage 3 will give the attackers a chance to shine.
The inclusion of the Cat. 1 summit finale up Montagne de Lure in stage 5, dubbed Mont Ventoux’s “little sister,” will trim down the GC contenders, if not crown the outright winner.
The 13.8km climb to 1,600 meters is the highest point in Paris-Nice history and will be the longest climb that anyone’s seen since last season. The following day’s 220km stage across a string of hard climbs from Manosque to Nice typically sees a knockdown brawl between the GC candidates.
The final-day climbing time trial up the Cat. 1 Col d’Eze towering above the Cote d’Azur will settle the GC.
71st Paris-Nice, March 3-10
Prologue: Sunday, March 3, Houilles — Houilles (2.9km)
Stage 1: Monday, March 4, Saint-Germain-en-Laye — Nemours (195km)
Stage 2: Tuesday, March 5, Vimory — Cérilly (200.5km)
Stage 3: Wednesday, March 6, Chatel-Guyon — Brioude (171km)
Stage 4: Thursday, March 7, Brioude — Saint-Vallier (199.5km)
Stage 5: Friday, March 8, Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Montagne de Lure (176km)
Stage 6: Saturday, March 9, Manosque — Nice (220km)
Stage 7: Sunday, March 10, Nice — Col d’Eze (9.6km)