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Mountainous Paris-Nice favors Contador

Alberto Contador returns to Paris-Nice for the first time since 2010 as the top favorite to win a third-career title in France’s “Race to the Sun.”

The WorldTour clicks back into gear Sunday with eight-day Paris-Nice, in what’s a very demanding and mountainous route that will favor Tinkoff’s Contador over a half-dozen serious GC rivals.

“I’d like this first part of the season to be as good as possible, but it’s certain Paris-Nice is a top-level race that everybody wants to win,” Contador said. “It’s demanding due to the level of the rivals and the difficulty in controlling it. Tinkoff heads to Paris-Nice with the intention to race well and fight for victory.”

Facing what’s likely his final pro season, Contador will race with defiance and pride and will take the win if it’s within his grasp. Standing in the way will be riders such as Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Richie Porte (BMC), and Geraint Thomas (Sky), but none of the major GC favorites are lining up for Paris-Nice. It will be up to Tinkoff to control the race, and it’s brought an experienced, deep group to position Contador for what would be his third Paris-Nice victory.

A challenging, mountainous course means it could prove difficult to control, and the race will have plenty of opportunities for stage-hunters. Nasty weather, with rain, wind, and cold, should keep the peloton on edge for the first three or four days of racing.

The inclusion of Mont Ventoux and La Madone will put a heavy emphasis on climbing, but the sprinters will have their chances in the first part of the race. With an opening prologue Sunday in the outskirts of Paris, there is something for everyone in Europe’s first major stage race.

The route: Heavy load for March

As the name implies, the “Race to the Sun” plows south from dreary northern France, still in the grip of winter, to arrive in the warmth of spring on the glimmering Cote d’Azur. Or at least that’s the idea, because sometimes the weather isn’t so cooperative.

The 2016 edition follows that template, starting Sunday in the outskirts of Paris, pushing south across the farmlands and nipping along the edges of the Massif Central, before dipping into Provence, and eventually arriving in Nice on March 13. Most years, the sun welcomes the peloton with gleeful intensity.

As the season’s first major European stage race, the route has something for everyone, but this year features a heavy emphasis on vertical. The prologue is followed by some opportunities for the sprinters in stage 1, 2, and 4, hilly terrain will put the GC favorites on notice in stage 3. Back-to-back climbing days in stages 5-6 should decide the GC before the traditional hilly finale into Nice. There’s no final-day time trial this year, so the GC should be decided before hitting the Promenade des Anglais.

The 6.1km prologue on a technical course will set the tone Sunday before what should be three bunch sprints in the first four stages. Crosswinds and tricky finales could split the bunch, spoiling GC hopes for anyone caught out. Stage 3 skirts the Massif Central with a knee-buster of a hilltop finale. Things get vertical in stage 5, tackling the flanks of Mont Ventoux, to the Chalet Reynard at 1,440 meters (4,724 feet), before dropping back to finish in Salon-de-Provence, with two cat. 2 climbs in between. The race should blow up in Stage 6 to La Madone d’Utelle (15.3km at 5.7 percent), making the seven-climb, 177km stage the Paris-Nice kingmaker. Sunday’s finale around Nice follows a familiar loop, climbing up Col d’Eze before a thrilling descent to the final sprint. Weak links could be broken for final-day shakeups if the GC is still tight.

The favorites: Contador, and everyone else

There’s no lack of favorites, but of the “Fantastic Four,” only Contador is trekking to France. Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) are holding fire until the Volta a Catalunya (March 21-27), and Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali is racing at Tirreno-Adriatico (March 9-15). A two-time winner, Contador is returning to Paris-Nice for the first time since 2010, and will be motivated to win in what could be his final season.

“It’s a complicated race, because of the high number of rivals, its parcours, and the often tough weather conditions,” Contador said. “It’s one of the toughest [courses] that I can recall, very hilly.”

Contador will see a stiff challenge from defending champion Porte, keen to prove his mettle after switching to BMC Racing this season. Geraint Thomas (Sky), Laurens Ten Dam (Giant – Alpecin), Andrew Talansky and Pierre Rolland (Cannondale), and Bardet should all make the GC fight very interesting. Porte, however, was downplaying his chances.

“I’m going into the race this year with less expectation than in previous years, and see it as another opportunity to get some race days into the legs,” Porte said. “Paris-Nice is a really solid race in the early part of the season, and a good way to test my form.”

Sprinters will likely have three opportunities for a mass gallop, with Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal) expected to clash in a solid sprinters’ field.

Weather: Gloomy to sunny

It looks to be sloppy for the opening stages, with forecasters expecting rain and cool temperatures for Sunday’s prologue. Unsettled weather, with a chance of showers and strong winds, will continue until the course breaks out into the Rhone Valley in stage 4. Sunny, clear skies should await the peloton in Provence.

Did you know?

It was during the 2003 edition that Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev died from a head injury suffered during a crash, prompting the UCI to require hard-shell helmets in all racing. An exemption for uphill finales was later lifted, meaning that riders have to wear a helmet from start to finish.

Our picks: Contador and Kristoff

Contador is always hard to beat, and looks to be entering the main block of his spring racing season on top form. He should see challenges from Porte, Thomas, and Bardet, who’ve all shown hints of strong early season form via victories and impressive rides, but the absence of a longer time trial tips the balance toward Spain’s “Pistolero.” Contador’s pride alone will propel him to victory.

It should be a battle royale between Kittel and Kristoff in the mass sprints. Both racked up wins in the Middle East to open their respective seasons. Add Bouhanni and Greipel into the mix, and the sprints should be down to the wire. Kristoff is ramping up for Milano-Sanremo, so that should give him a slight edge over Kittel.