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Paris-Nice to tackle dirt, Ventoux and La Madone

Packed dirt roads, a battle on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux, and a steep ascent to La Madone d’Utelle awaits the Paris-Nice peloton in 2016.

The year’s first major stage race will set off from Conflans-Saint-Honorine on March 6 and arrive on Promenade des Anglais in Nice on the 13. As usual, it has been designed as a mini Tour de France, providing insight into the thinking of the Tour’s course designers. What’s on their minds this year? Dirt roads, a few new climbs, and the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux.

Gone is the traditional Col d’Eze time trial, in favor of a 6.6km opening prologue. Stage 1 will send riders over packed dirt roads, reminiscent of the increasingly popular Tro Bro Leon race, on its way to Vendôme.

Following a 214km transition stage, the race will head toward a hilly finish in Mont Bruilly for stage 3; it will be one for the puncheurs.

The fifth and sixth stages will decide the race. Stage 5 finishes on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux, 457 meters (1,500 feet) below the summit at Salon-de-Provence at 1,440 meters (4,724 feet).

The following stage will tackle La Madone d’Utelle for the first time. This is not the famous Col de la Madone that rises from Menton, which is frequently used by pro riders living in Nice and Monaco to test fitness. Rather, Madone d’Utelle is up some 50 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast, beginning in the town of Utelle and finishing at a small church at the climb’s summit.

The 1,158-meter (3,800-foot) climb is 15km long and moderately steep, averaging 5.7%. If the gaps remain tight following Ventoux, Paris-Nice will be decided on the Madone’s slopes.

The final stage will start and finish in Nice, including a passage over Col d’Eze. It will be hilly, and particularly difficult if the weather is bad, as it was last year.