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Paris Nice: Racing to the Sun

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The *real* racing season has kicked off and it's time for one of our favorite stage races of the year: an annual pilgrimage from the dreary suburbs of Paris to sunny Nice. Though none of the big grand tour contenders are here, it's shaping up to be a heck of a week of racing.

Henem/Panoramic

As a snow-bound - and often cloud bound - Midwesterner, a "race to the sun" sounds pretty spectacular right now. That moniker was always a clever branding, as the race starts in the northern part of France, often riddled with cold, wind, and rain for the first few days. But, slowly, the temperatures climb as the race winds its way south towards the climbs and the coast, finishing in Nice alongside the beaches or on the slopes of the Col d'Eze overlooking town. Racing to the sun was attractive, especially for riders who had been stuck training in worse locales.

But, things changed. Tirreno-Adriatico appeared in 1966 and transformed itself in the last decade, adding serious climbs and drawing grand tour riders south to warmer climes as they sought out tune-up races to build fitness on the way to the Tour or the Giro. If you're looking for a good read, Conor has a great history of the race here.

After the grand tour riders migrated south, Paris-Nice tried to invent itself as a race for classics contenders, a feat which it accomplished well last year by dropping its customary mountain stage and replacing it with a series of finishes on or following more moderate climbs. But, a year after a spirited battle between Carlos Betancur, Rui Costa, and a host of other similarly punchy riders, the race returns to a more classic route built more for stage racers than one-day specialists. With Froome, Contador, and Nibali all riding Tirreno next week, it is a bit of an awkward situation, but that shouldn't detract from what looks like a really interesting route for Paris-Nice this year. What's on tap?

Prologue: Maurepas / Maurepas, 6.7km

Stage 1: Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse / Contres, 196.5km

With a flat profile and prevailing winds from the northwest this time of year, this could be a nervous stage. There could be just enough crosswinds to make splits possible and speeds will be high. The race is likely to turn into a cross-headwind with just ten kilometers left to race, so splits will probably come back together, but nobody will relax till the all but assured sprint is over.

Stage 2: ZooParc de Beauval - Saint-Aignan / Saint-Amand-Montrond, 172km

Starting in a zoo sounds pretty great to me, especially for fans who gather to watch the race depart then have nothing else to do for the rest of the day. Plus, this is where one of the rare pairs of pandas in French zoos reside, so, exciting! Aside from the opening excitement, this stage could be a bit of a snoozer with no real possibilities outside a sprint, especially with prevailing winds almost directly behind the riders.

Stage 3: Saint-Amand-Montrond / Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule, 179km

At least we are getting into the hills with a few categorized climbs early on, but the hardest climb is 2.4km at 5.4% - no big deal, even if it comes near the finish. So, back to ze sprints!

Stage 4: Varennes-sur-Allier / Croix de Chaubouret, 204km

Just after you got lulled to sleep after the last two stages, the route gives you a doozy of an awakening. The route gently rolls towards the Croix de Chaubouret - there are seven categorized climbs on the way to the summit finish, but none are very hard. Instead, it's just a rolling day in the saddle, one that could end a sprint for the hard men were it not for the 10 kilometers at 6.7% at the end of the stage. The Category 1 climb has been used in the Tour de France eight times since its first inclusion in 1950 and should be relatively steady, the sort of climb that sorts out the pretenders but doesn't prompt attacks from super far out. Look for the favorites to be within a minute of each other after this one finishes.

Stage 5: Saint-Étienne / Rasteau, 192.5km

After the first sojourn into the climbs, we return to flattish stages. Riders will be in for a rude awakening as they hit the Category 1 Col de la République right out of the gates, but this should just serve as a springboard for the inevitable breakaway. Whether the break sticks is up to the whims of the sprinters' teams. The flat middle of the stage favors a sprint, but the final 50 kilometers have a few climbs perhaps just serious enough to dislodge the fast men. If Peter Sagan were here, he'd be licking his chops. Instead, look to Giant-Alpecin and Orica-GreenEDGE to set up the sprint for John Degenkolb and Michael Matthews respectively. You'll want to tune in for the last 20 kilometers as the break attacks itself and the chase tries to keep everything in check.

Stage 6: Vence / Nice, 180.5km

While Stage 4 may have more of an effect on the general classification, Stage 6 is poised to be the best viewing of the race with six serious climbs - all Category 1 or 2 - on the road to Nice. This resembles many final stages of old, which historically climbed over the Col d'Eze after a hilly day in the saddle before plunging to a finish line in downtown Nice. Instead of the Eze, today's stage summits the Côte de Peille last. The race then gradually descends for a while before meeting up with the famous Col d'Eze descent with 15 kilometers to go. The road here is serpentine, but not crazily technical or steep, setting up occasional attacks on the way down. Look for a group of overall contenders to wage a tactical battle up and over the Cöte de Peille with a small group or solo rider hitting the finish line together. This looks like a perfect stage for Rui Costa to steal, which means it ought to be a fun one to watch.

Stage 7: Nice / Col d/Eze, 9.5km

In later years, Paris-Nice has shifted towards using the Col d'Eze as the site of the race's one substantial time trial. The gradual climb - 9.6km at an average of 4.5% and few sustained sections over 7% - makes for an interesting matchup between chrono specialists and climbers. Riders will be on road bikes, but many will use clip-on aerobars for long sections of the climb. By leaving the uphill time trial until the last day, organizers are trying to keep some suspense in the race until the last possible moment. But, don't be surprised if the overall standings change little on this stage - the climb isn't too dissimilar from the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret on Stage 4, just a bit more gradual. the gaps that opened on the Col de la Croix de Chabouret on Stage 4 are only likely to be amplified here. The climbs aren't quite the same, but are similar enough in length and the gradients they have that no surprises are likely to occur.

The Cast

With all the major grand tour contenders in Italy for Tirreno, the race should be an intriguing fight between one-week specialists. The big battle looks like it will be a showdown between 2013 winner Richie Porte, Tejay van Garderen,  and 2014 Criterium du Dauphine winner Andrew Talansky. Porte may be the stronger climber of the three, but Talansky's penchant for aggressive racing could flip tables on Stage 6, especially if van Garderen gets frisky too. Behind these two a host of strong one-week racers will be vying for podium spots, including up-and-comer Rafael Majka, Rui Costa, and Romain Bardet. On the sprint side of things, Andrei Greipel, John Degenkolb, Nacer Bouhanni, and Bryan Coquard should bring plenty of party to entertain you.