There's a certain gratification in having Podium Cafe hit the streets with our Paris-Nice preview before any of the major web sites. After all, this is the kickoff event for what's left of the Pro Cycling Tour, and frankly leaving the job of previewing it to the last minute is inexcusable. You could be forgiven for deleting VeloNews.com from your bookmarks list.
That said, the weather's still on the verge of pluie/neige across northern France, which reminds us that it's still early enough in the season to make handicapping the race a meaningless event. So instead, here is all I know about Paris-Nice.
This should be quick...
First, a little history. The race has been going on since 1933, and following a roughly similar route every year but for the removal of the start from Paris to the suburbs -- this year kicks off Sunday in Issy-les Moulineaux, wherever that is. The course rolls southward through one route or another, before getting bumpy in the middle and dropping down from the Maritime Alps to Nice, usually with the Col d'Eze constituting the last climb just outside Nice. Sean Kelly should have the race named after him, following seven consecutive wins in the 80s. Nobody will ever accuse him of lounging around all winter. Last year Bobby Julich became the first ever American winner, wresting the title from Jorg Jaksche, who himself had ended two years of inspired wins by Alexandre Vinokourov.
As for this year's route, there are numerous reasons why it's impossible to predict a winner:
- Motivations are impossible to predict in early March. CSC will undoubtedly try to defend, and it is a Pro Tour event. But given the calendar, a number of teams may need to gauge peoples' fitness before even deciding how to approach the race. Does Discovery ride for Popovych or Danielson? Depends, perhaps...
- Weather is always a wildcard. And it should be iffy for a while.
- There are loads of climbs, even a few long ones, but the grade never hits even 7%, so it's hard to point to a particular climb and say it could be decisive. The only time trial is the 4km prologue. In other words, it's hard to say where anyone should get eliminated on this course. Chance and motivation will play big roles, neither of which we can glean ahead of time.
I will say this: if I were a DS of a French team, I would be really, really motivated for this race. French Cycling is a well-chronicled disaster these days, something we will point out frequently on this site. And nothing could lift the spirits of a lot of people in the sport who need some spirit lifting than a nice win on home soil. Particularly after Gilbert's win at the Volk, maybe French teams are getting ready to show up?
What's more, the PCT calendar doesn't really offer French teams any better chances to win at home. Next up is Paris-Roubaix, with an extremely long list of non-French favorites ready to shut out the home teams for a ninth straight year. After that, it's the Dauphine... a mountain goat warmup race. Then GP Ouest-Plouay and Paris-Tours, sprinters races. Oh, and the Tour, nuff said.
The hard part is nominating a French rider capable of winning... Sylvain Chavanel? Thomas Voeckler? Pierrick Fedrigo? The ageless Christophe Moreau? Anyway, the big teams are all there, so between the homegrown riders and the foreigners on French teams, maybe someone will step up. I'm not predicting it will happen, but that's my most entertaining scenario.
Speaking of entertainment, there should be a couple sprints to watch. Boonen will be in town, and while Milram left their finishers back home, Tornado Tom can still butt heads with Drew's buddy Kirsipuu, Robbie Hunter, the Davitamon boys (Steels, Steegmans, etc.), and a host of B-listers. He'll be a heavy favorite, but nothing is set in stone.