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Preview: Interesting Paris-Nice route sets up tactical battle

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Mar. 7, 2014
  • Updated Mar. 7, 2014 at 7:29 AM EDT
Sylvain Chavanel is among the riders capable of winning the Paris-Nice overall on a course that favors the attackers. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Paris-Nice starts Sunday and offers an interesting twist on how to win a major stage race.

The eight-day course from the outskirts of Paris to Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur sets the stage for tactical, almost surgical racing. Why? There are no time trials or mountaintop finishes in the 72nd edition of the “Race to the Sun.”

That means that the smartest, or perhaps luckiest, rider will win, and the strongest will almost certainly not. That doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting.

In fact, the race could be terribly exciting, setting up what organizers hope will be a week full of attacks and aggression, something that’s sometimes lost in weeklong stage races when everyone knows the winner will be crowned in a time trial or one decisive climb.

Although there are no mountaintop finales, that doesn’t mean the race will be easy. With all eight days lined up as road stages, the distance is its longest in nearly 40 years, at 1,447 kilometers. The course offers a mix of terrain as it rolls south toward the warmer Mediterranean climes, with a few days suited for mass sprints, and the remainder tailored to riders who are not afraid to attack.

There is plenty of climbing along the way as well; the finish lines will merely be on the downhill sides of the mountains.

The opening three stages are ideal for the peloton’s sprinters, with the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) looking to grab wins early.

“This year’s route doesn’t present a time trial, so it will probably be a more open race,” Omega Pharma sport director Wilfried Peeters said Thursday in a press release. “There will be at the beginning a few stages suited for sprinters and riders who can defend themselves on the small climbs. We can count on Tom Boonen and Gianni Meersman for these kinds of races.”

Things will start to get interesting in the 201km fourth stage to Belleville, with four climbs packed into the final 80km, including 25-percent ramps on the Cat. 2 Mount Brouilly some 14km from the finish line.

That’s typical of what Paris-Nice will look like from there all the way to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice: a lot of undulating terrain for raiders to go on the march.

Stage 5 to Rive-de-Gier features another steep Cat. 2 climb 12.5km from the finish. The 221km, five-climb “queen stage” to Fayence sees a first-category climb with 20km to go before a short, punchy hilltop run to the line.

The penultimate stage explores the rugged terrain in the “pre-Alps,” in the hill country in the interior, with five climbs sprinkled across the middle part of the stage, providing chances for long-distance attackers.

Assuming no one rides away in a breakaway to take major time gaps, the GC should still be fairly knotted up going into the final stage starting and finishing in Nice.

The five-climb, 128km finale hits Col d’Eze — often home to a final-stage time trial — with 14km to go, and from there, it’s downhill almost all the way home. The race could be decided on the beachfront finish line in Nice, which is just what race organizers are hoping for.

Nibali, Hushovd among the wide-ranging Paris-Nice contenders

So who could win this thing? A strong descender, such as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) or Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), will have an edge. So, too, will riders with strong finishing punches out of small groups, like world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).

Traditional GC riders, who excel in time trialing and defending on the climbs, such as returning champ Richie Porte (Sky) and last year’s third-place man, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), could be on the back foot.

“My fitness feels good — even better than last year — having raced in Oman [Tour of Oman in February],” van Garderen said in a press release. “They picked a nice route, but I am disappointed there is no time trial or uphill finish, which could make sprinting for bonus seconds valuable. My goal remains to fight for the general classification. Winning will be difficult, but we will try to get as high a finish as possible. We are sending a strong, motivated team, which could provide lots of options.”

More important than the traditional GC skill set will be the ability to attack for time bonuses. Although Tour de France owner ASO removed time bonuses from its marquee event, they will prove decisive in Paris-Nice. There are bonuses of 3, 2, and 1 seconds at intermediate sprints, and 10, 6, and 4 seconds for the first three across the line at the finish each day.

Back in January, Gerrans won the Santos Tour Down Under against Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) by one second thanks to time bonuses. It’s highly likely Paris-Nice will be decided with a fight for time bonuses as well.

The race is considered by many to be the season’s first “real” stage race, but it’s been somewhat overshadowed lately as rival Tirreno-Adriatico across the border in Italy has been drawing a better GC field.

That’s not to say Paris-Nice doesn’t have a quality field. Nibali chose Paris-Nice over defending his two consecutive Tirreno titles because he wanted more time racing in France as he preps for a run at the Tour de France in July.

The French race has also served as a jumping off point for young riders hoping to establish themselves high up in the sport’s pecking order. Andrew Talansky (Garmin) rode onto the podium after a stage win in 2013. Cannondale’s Damiano Caruso hopes to do the same this year.

“Taking a win in this race could make a big difference for the rest of the season,” Caruso said in a press release. “This is my first chance to really have a bold performance. Many cycling stars will be at the start, and we are all vying for the same stage wins. I have one goal for the Paris-Nice: return to Italy with positive results and success. I am really motivated to do it.”

In addition to riders already mentioned, other top names include the Andy and Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), and crowd favorite Thomas Voeckler (Europcar).

In addition to the 18 guaranteed spots to the UCI ProTeams, three wildcards fill out the field, with Bretagne-Séché Environnement, Cofidis, and IAM Cycling.

Audacity is the word race organizers are using in their promotional material. It will be interesting to see how ASO’s experiment turns out.

72nd Paris-Nice (March 9-16)

Stage 1: Mantes-la-Jolie — Mantes-la-Jolie (162.5km)
Stage 2: Rambouillet — Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche (205km)
Stage 3: Toucy — Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours (180km)
Stage 4: Nevers — Belleville (201.5km)
Stage 5: Creches-sur-Saone — Rive-de-Gier (152.5km)
Stage 6: Saint-Saturnin-les-Avignon — Fayence (221.5km)
Stage 7: Mougins — Biot Sophia Antipolis (221.5km)
Stage 8: Nice — Nice (128km)

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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