Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) ★★★★ Last year’s Paris-Nice proved a difficult race for the 24-year-old GC man, who’s widely considered America’s best stage racer. He finished fifth overall and was the best young rider, yet he really wanted the big win, or at least a podium, here. Van Garderen, however, lost valuable seconds in the prologue and nearly half-a-minute to his rivals on the queen stage to Mende, which featured a tough uphill finish. Then he failed to deliver in the time trial on Col d’Eze, finishing 1:15 down on Wiggins. Still, van Garderen went on to have a superb Tour de France, where again he was fifth overall and the best young rider.
Van Garderen has clearly grown tired of consolation prizes such as the white jersey, and he’s been frustrated with narrow misses in weeklong races like the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge. To erase the bad memories of last year’s race, he’ll have to limit his losses in a prologue that doesn’t suit him, then hold his own on Lure Mountain with the pure climbers; finally, he’ll need to improve in the Col d’Eze TT — a stage that should suit him on paper, though he has struggled in uphill time trials at times. The American’s time has come to win a major stage race, and in the absence of Wiggins, Froome, and Contador, this year’s Paris-Nice is already starting to look like his race to lose.
Robert Gesink (Blanco) ★★★★ The Dutch climber has raced Paris-Nice just once, in 2008, when he finished fourth overall after losing the leader’s jersey on a chaotic descent during the queen stage. But he came up big at last year’s Tour of California, riding an impressive time trial and dropping his rivals on Mount Baldy to win the overall. In 2011 he nearly won Tirreno-Adriatico, a race that’s similar to Paris-Nice and also run in March. Last week’s Vuelta a Murcia saw Gesink finish fourth after working for teammate Bauke Mollema on a tough uphill finish, so his form is good. Plus, a strong Blanco lineup will surround him, with talented riders like Wilco Kelderman, Steven Kruijswijk, and Mark Renshaw looking after their captain. The biggest question surrounding Gesink is where he is in his preparation as he targets the Giro d’Italia, in May, for the first time in his career.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) ★★★★ If Paris-Nice is van Garderen’s to lose, it is “The Pit Bull’s” to tear away from him. Talansky’s star doesn’t shine as brightly as his heralded countryman, but the 24-year-old has something van Garderen doesn’t: a professional stage-race win. Talansky won the five-stage Tour de l’Ain in August 2012 and went on to finish seventh overall in a brutal Vuelta a España. After thieves made off with Garmin’s race bikes on the eve of the Tour Méditerranéen time trial earlier this year — a stage in which Talansky could very well have taken victory and the overall lead — he will be that much hungrier at Col d’Eze. Talansky is aiming for his Tour debut this season and is keyed up for a major race win before he gets there.
The key match-up of the race may be a three-way affair between van Garderen, Gesink, and Talansky. With two Americans and the reigning Amgen Tour champ at the sharp end of racing, Paris-Nice should provide compelling theatre for U.S. fans.
Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) ★★★ The Dutchman surprised the favorites in last year’s Paris-Nice on the queen stage to Mende, attacking on the finishing climb of the Côte de la Croix-Neuve–Montée Laurent Jalabert and putting riders like Wiggins under pressure. (Had Westra not freewheeled to the finish line in Mende, he could have possibly won Paris-Nice as he ended up losing to Wiggins by eight seconds.) Westra showed he was worthy of a podium finish by riding strongly to second place in the final-stage time trial on the Col d’Eze, just two second off Wiggins’ winning pace. This year Westra has already shown great form, finishing third on the mountain stage of the Volta ao Algarve (Tour of the Algarve) before taking fourth in the time trial, for third overall. Expect Westra to do his best to go a step higher on the podium and take his biggest victory.
Rui Costa (Movistar): ★★★ The Portuguese all-rounder won last year’s Tour de Suisse and started the season with second in the queen stage at the Volta ao Algarve last month. With Movistar riding for Alejandro Valverde at the Tour de France, Costa will be looking to take advantage of the chances when he gets them and Paris-Nicew is a big one.
Richie Porte (Sky) ★★ Winner of the 2012 Volta ao Algarve, Porte is best known as the Australian engine who rides tirelessly for team leaders Wiggins and Froome, and he has shown at races such as the Tour de France that he’s one of the strongest domestiques in the peloton. But in this year’s Paris-Nice, he’ll be leading the squad for the general classification. The best young rider of the 2010 Giro d’Italia will find Paris-Nice to be a great challenge, but he brings a solid team that has a mix of experience and hungry young riders. With Wiggins out and Froome racing in Italy, expect Porte, 28, to take full advantage of this rare opportunity to lead Sky to overall victory in a major stage race. His strong climbing and time trialing should see him make a run for a podium finish.
Others to watch
Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) ★★
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) ★
Thomas Löfkvist (IAM Cycling) ★
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) ★
Ted King (Cannondale)
Danny Pate (Sky)
Ian Boswell (Sky)
Mathew Busche (RadioShack)
Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp)
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)
Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing)
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing>
A number of top stage racers have opted to race Tirreno-Adriatico (March 6-12). They include Chris Froome (Sky), Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma–Quick-Step).
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.