Today, as I write, the other race traditionally defined as the opener of the season is underway. Paris-Nice is steaming toward St George Sur Baulche, proving once more that France will never, ever run out of obscure saints. Paris-Nice is World Tour all the way, the second of the season (after the STD-U), and boasts a history that its primary competition, Tirreno-Adriatico, can't sniff. In recent years it's been a proving ground for Tour de France wildcard hopefuls, though now with those handed out in January Paris-Nice is more of a time to show gratitude and worthiness. And ask any Belgian, Paris-Nice still remains a fine way to get in shape for the Classics.
More and more, however, the RCS suite of races is challenging Paris-Nice's place. We've talked numerous times over the years about how Tirreno-Adriatico has honed in on Paris-Nice's business, a trend that's run on for some five years now or longer. It started with good hotels and food, plus better weather. Paris-Nice has always had crappy weather, inasmuch as you can say "always" and "weather" in the same sentence. But as long as T-A was a boring succession of sprint stages, the lack of training benefit was going to keep the best racers in France. Things changed in 2008, when the use of Montelupone helped narrow the "degree of difficulty" gap. Now, at least, stage racers looking for an early tuneup for their Giro or Tour de France future form had a good reason to prefer Italy's better weather and hotels. And while the hotels thing might go into HTFU territory, the weather thing is no joke. Cold and rain equal flu for these guys, and a bout with the flu, if it carries on too far, can wipe out critical training and racing, throwing one's season off balance. Cycling is ever a finer line than it appears.
That's all from the riders' perspective, of course. From the fans' perspective, shit got real when some utter genius concocted the Strade Bianche, cycling's most historical event that is utterly lacking in history. The origins of this throwback sportive-turned pro event are well known, as are its popular effect. The race took off like wildfire after a few enjoyable pro versions, beginning with the inaugural in 2007, and fans reacted to a dusty race across the white roads with utter delirium, making this a surprisingly urgent event for teams and sponsors. Riders seem to enjoy it, the competition is ideal (tough, rolling course), the weather tends to be good, and the fans go berserk. Add in live pictures, and any sponsor of pro cycling is gonna want to be there.
This year, I think, RCS -- owner and/or promoter of Tirreno, Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima -- have applied the hard press on Paris-Nice. As recently as last year you could race the White Roads, make a quick transfer out of Florence, and take the start at Paris-Nice the next day. [Not easy, but still...] Now? The creation of Roma Maxima, spun from the tattered threads of the forgettable Giro del Lazio, has given riders a bookend event as a viable alternative to rushing off to Paris. It's a short(-ish) transfer to Rome, presumably en masse now, for the next day's start of the suddenly interesting Roma Maxima, another stern test for the all-rounders with some hope for the sprinters too, and plenty of live pictures along with fans devouring the ancient scenery of Rome. Sure, you can still jet on back for Paris-NIce, but with two days of racing immediately followed by Tirreno (now starting Monday instead of Tuesday or Wednesday), why would you?
Paris-Nice will always be viable, of course, and this year's less dramatic parcours is a smart move by ASO to counter the RCS assault. Lacking in signature climbs is actually a selling point, one that Tirreno and its showy new style will probably never adopt, since most of the non-Grand Tour contenders don't need signature climbs as much as a steady diet of moderately hard events. Look for good, tough racing across southern France every day rather than a long prelude to a crescendo, like what you'll see in Italy. The climbing teams won't be in France asserting their control the way they will be in Italy.
But it's quite interesting to see Paris-Nice assuming the alternates role, and ASO will have to tread carefully in the next few years as it navigates the new landscape. Paris-Nice can't just hang its hat on tradition as a way to assert itself against a logical, diverse, and attractive slate of Italian races. Sure, the peloton might see it as the venerable spring event, but if the fans don't care, then ultimately neither should anyone else. Fans will care if Paris-Nice can show why it matters every bit as much to the evolving racing year. Personally, I care quite a bit about seeing teams like Omega Pharma and Garmin sending their A-list classics squad to France, and if this is the niche Paris-Nice continues to carve out, it's a solid one. Sure, Giro tuneups are fun, but it's not Giro Season just yet. It's Classics time, and how Boonen looks matters more than practically anything else. That's what I'll be watching this week, after a weekend of fun, Italian style. I like it when cycling is entertaining, as it always is in Italy nowadays, but I like it when it really matters too.