It’s Paris-Nice time again. Time to race to the sun. I mean, some of us already live in the sun? But the rest of you can go ahead and race to it. We’ll watch.
Can you believe it? It’s already time for the first European stage race of the season. The 2012 edition of Paris-Nice, which begins on Sunday 4 March, follows a familiar pattern. That is, it starts in Paris, heads south through central France, and finishes in Nice.
In a throwback to the past, the 2012 Paris-Nice ends with a time trial on the Col d’Èze instead of the more typical road stage. There are eight stages in all, for those of you who like to count things. The race finishes on Sunday, 11 March.
And actually, the race doesn’t really start in Paris. It starts outside Paris in Dampierre-en-Yvelines. Ah, yes, we’re in France where all the hyphens live. Also? It’s totally false advertising to call the race Paris-Nice when it’s actually Dampierre-en-Yvelines-Nice. But we’ll let it slide this time. Apparently, there is a very nice Baroque château in Dampierre-en-Yvelines, which Wikipedia helpfully describes as being of "manageable size." I think that probably means it’s bigger than my shack, but I’m not sure.
Anywho, the bike race. Paris-Nice starts with a 9.4 kilometer time trial. Silly hats! Yes, we will get to see the Silly Hats for 9.4 kilometers. The Men in Silly Hats will ride from Dampierre-en-Yvelines to Saint-Rèmy-lès-Chevreuse as fast as they possibly can. There is on categorized climb at the 1.8 kilometer mark. But don’t be scared, it’s only 172 meters tall. The rest is rolling. Specialist territory! The winner gets to wear the yellow shirt the following day. Simple.
The first road stage, stage 2, runs from Mantes-la-Jolie to Orléans. There’s only one categorized climb, the Côte des Granges-le-Roi. It’s a category 3 for this race and stands a massive 152 meters above sea level. Careful up there, the air might get a little thin.
This is my favorite part of the early season races, really. The race organizers search out every molehill available and assign it a category. In July? The Côte des Granges-le-Roi will not be a category 3. But since Paris-Nice has a mountains classification, there have to be climbs with points. Also, if it weren’t for this measly category 3 climb, no one - not even Français des Jeux - would bother to ride the breakaway on this stage. So we have a category 3 molehill. I’m going to choose to be okay with that.
This stage should totally end in a bunch sprint in Orléans. In fact, I shall eat my floppy beach hat if a sprinter does not win this stage. If you like sprinting? Watch this stage. If you don’t? Sleep in, obviously. Do I have to explain everything?
Onward, mes amis! Onward to stage 3, which runs from Vierzon to Le Lac de Vassivière. With this stage, the race passes to the east of Limoges and is in the neighborhood of the Massif Central. It all starts out innocently enough, then it bumps along to an uphill finish. Sorry, sprinter dudes. It’s nothing crazy, 5 kilometers at an average of 3.9%. So, I suppose if the sprinters are super determined, it could be a sprint. Really, who am I to predict these things. The early season, it is so confusing.
Brive-la-Gaillarde-Rodez. I did warn you about the hyphens. Now we’re getting serious, and this stage 4 includes five categorized climbs. Yes, Français des Jeux will definitely be in the breakaway today. So will Tommy Voeckler. Pourquoi pas? The race remains in central France and heads southeast for its first ever visit to Rodez, which has a lovely cathedral. The bike race finishes in front of the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Rodez.
The fourth stage finishes with two climbs with 20 kilometers to race. Neither are especially huge as these things go. The Côte d’Aubert-le-Crès summits at 584 meters with 12.5 kilometers to race. No descent for you! Just a flat bit of racing until inside the final kilometer. The Côte de Bourran is going to suck. For the riders, at least. It’s an average 7.9% gradient. But don’t worry, it only lasts .4 kilometers. Short and nasty. It won’t matter for the general classification riders, probably, but it should make for some stage finish shenanigans. I like shenanigans.
Are we there yet? How far left to go? No, we’re not there yet. We’re only halfway. Four more stages!
Fortunately, there’s some climbing to liven things up. Because we would not want anyone to be bored.
Stage 5! Onet-le-Château-Mende. This could be l’étape de vérité! That’s what the race website says, anyway, and they would never lie. There’s a lot of climbing on the way to Mende, like six categorized climbs. The Côte de la Malène at kilometer 96 looks rather unpleasant: 4.2 kilometers at 7.9%.
This stage saves the best for last and it finishes on La-Croix-Neuve-Montée Laurent Jalabert with 3 kilometers at 10%. You know you’re important when they start naming climbs after you. Alberto Contador won this climb in 2010 and went on to win the overall in Nice. (And yes, this result does stand since it came before the ill-fated 2010 Tour de France. Confusing, it is.) The general classification riders have to ride today, and this final climb is hard enough in March to create a selection.
If you’ve been sleeping through the first four stages, which you totally should not be, but if you are? You should totally wake up for stage 5. Watch this one, it should be good.
Sadly, we can’t linger in Mende and watch the bike racers climb La-Croix-Neuve-Montée Laurent Jalabert over and over. Anyway, it would probably get boring after a while.
It’s on to stage 6 we go! The sixth stage runs from Suze-la-Rousse to Sisteron. Suze-la-Rousse is Côte du Rhône territory, so drink up! The stage starts out with some climbing, then dwindles to a flat finish. I feel a breakaway on this one, especially with so many mountains points on offer. Five categorized climbs! Count ‘em! Hey, there’s one for each finger, this is my kind of counting.
This stage 6 finishes on a circuit and there’s a lovely little launchpad of a climb at 12 kilometers to go. The Côte des Marquises is only 1.3 kilometers at 6.8%, but for a rider feeling feisty, it’s a nice spot to have a go. After their adventuring in Mende, the general classification riders will likely keep it chill on this one and play the waiting game.
We’re almost there now. Just two stages left to go.
Stage seven runs southeast through the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes. Running from Sisteron to Nice, the stage includes four categorized climbs. With 50 kilometers left to race, the riders summit the main climb of he day, the Col de Vence. It’s a nice chunk of climb, but it comes several time zones from the finish.
The Col de Vence will split the field, but the favorites will almost certainly stay together. It’s a finish for a sprinter who can climb, like a Peter Sagan sort of character. Or, maybe a break will go on the climb and survive to the finish. With just one day to race, no one is going to let the clock run out too far, of course, but there’s never any harm in letting a few riders out to play, as long as they’re well-down on the general.
The grande finale! This year’s Paris-Nice finishes with a time trial up the Col d’Èze. This stage traditionally finished Paris-Nice until the switch in recent years to a road stage. In 1969, Eddy Merckx was the first to win the Col d’Èze time trial. Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk, Stephen Roche, and Sean Kelly are also among the big names to have won this time trial.
The final time trial on the Col d’Èze runs 9.6 kilometers. It’s a stair-stepping climb and it opens with two kilometers of steep ramps, then backs off, then goes steep again. The final two kilometers of the climb time trial are mostly flat. This isn’t really super-climber territory of the Plan de Corones sort, but the climbers certainly have the advantage.
Bouleverser! The race website says that this final stage will overturn the general classification. Such optimism! That’s a lot to ask of 9 kilometers of racing, but it’s true that the race lead could easily change hands on this uphill test.
Paris-Nice favors the climbers this year, mostly. The opening time trial is not especially flat, there’s that nasty wall in Mende, and the race ends with an uphill test on the Col d’Èze. Eat your heart out sprinter boys.
Who’s racing? How about Richie Porte, Bradley Wiggins,Tejay van Garderen, David Moncoutié, Damiano Cunego (Yes! I said it!), Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, Tony Martin, Levi Leipheimer, Luis Leòn Sànchez, Fränk and Andy Schleck, and Janez Brajkovic. Garmin-Barracuda is sending Andrew Talansky, which intrigues me. Talansky is a talented stage racer, though it may be too early for him to count among the favorites here.
Prediction? Somebody will win. Hey! I’m just trying to help!
Coming up next: The general classification preview.