La Course au Soleil. The Race to the Sun. Whatever you call it, Paris-Nice is a race with a lot of history. This history contains some very big names on the list of winners, and some very tough competitions, between Irish legends Roche and Kelly in the 1980s for example (spoiler alert, Kelly won them all), with other famous victors of the race including Simpson, Poulidor, Merckx, Zoetemelk and Indurain.
However, in recent years, The-race-didn't-have-to-go-to-the-sun-because-it-was-further-south-than-Nice-anyway (or in a somewhat less catchy title, Tirreno-Adriatico) robbed most of the star contenders from Paris-Nice and becoming arguably the more prestigious race for the first time in its history. Officially, a Grand Tour winner has won Tirreno-Adriatico for every one of the last seven years, while Paris-Nice has only had two Grand Tour winners topping the podium in that time. Since 2013, six riders who rode Tirreno-Adriatico won a Grand Tour that year. Only one Paris-Nice rider won a Grand Tour - last year's Vuelta - in the same year as riding the French race. In short, the stats show that in the last three years at least, Tirreno-Adriatico has replaced Paris-Nice as the place to be, in March at least. Tirreno-Adriatico has been further helped by the amount of riders, including Kreuziger, Valverde, Evans and most of the classics riders, who want to ride Strade Bianche, also growing exponentially in popularity, becoming a true classic, even though this year it celebrates a paltry ten years in existence.
So what's the fuss about? Who's riding?
Things are looking much better for the French race, with the quality split far more evenly. While Tour de France podium finishers Christopher Froome and Nairo Quintana are not racing until later in the month, Alberto Contador has chosen to ride Paris-Nice for the first time since his 2010 victory. The race is a common haunt of sprinters, but even more than usual are taking to the start in Conflans-Saint-Honorine. Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff, André Greipel, Michael Matthews, Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni will all take part. France are sending some young GC talent too. Fresh after challenging in Oman, Romain Bardet rides for AG2R, and Pierre Rolland will want to make an impact for Cannondale. Tony Gallopin rides as well, after a good run at the GC last year, including a brilliant stage victory. The defending champion, Richie Porte will ride too, on his BMC outfit. Lampre are sending a strong challenge in Rui Costa and Louis Meintjes, and LottoNL-Jumbo bring Wilco Kelderman and Steven Kruijswijk. Tom Dumoulin is also riding. As for Sky? Consider the kitchen sink well and truly chucked. Roche, Henao the elder, Nieve and Thomas all ride. Ilnur Zakarin and Simon Spilak are riding for Katusha and will hope to emulate their Tour de Romandie success of last year.
The reason for this upturn in fortunes for the race? Well, it's probably the course. Tirreno-Adriatico has one mountain stage with a summit finish, and another with a stage for the puncheurs. Paris-Nice's course is very similar, with a summit finish, a puncheurs' day on Mont Brouilly, and a typical Paris-Nice day over the Col de Vence. They're both fairly similar, and this is reflected in the similar quality of the fields.
And what are they going to face?
That profile is adorable. But seriously, a prologue? So 2007. That notwithstanding, it's slightly uphill, but never reaching 100 metres in elevation. Tom Dumoulin, Rohan Dennis and Jerome Coppel are the best time triallists in the race, and will fight out the victory unless the battle for position in the GC overtakes them. Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Wilco Kelderman are all good time-triallists, and are all headed for a top ten in their effort to win the yellow jersey. However, my pick for this stage is Dumoulin. He's good at prologue time trials, and should be well motivated for the race.
I would like to question exactly what the organisers were thinking about this stage. Maybe they watched Strade Bianche and said "we need some of that in Paris Nice?" Whatever the case, they've gone about it wrong. The dangerous narrow gravel sections which adorn this course only begin in the last 25 kilometres, and they are narrow and dangerous. A three-year old Street View search reveals this picture of the first section.
I think we can safely classify that as "narrow." How is a peloton getting past that? The situation doesn't seem to have improved recently, either.
Maybe I'm overreacting, but that's an accident waiting to happen if you try to squeeze 180 cyclists down that road.
Assuming that there isn't a crash, Tony Gallopin has clearly done a recce of this stage, and will obviously try to contend.
This stage really does not like Carlton Kirby. It's also the first real sprint stage of the race, with only a short category three climb and an uncategorised bump between Contres and Commentry. It should be between Kittel and Greipel, with the advantage going to the Etixx rider.
This stage should be the first non-literal GC shakeup. There are five third category climbs on the way to the three kilometre finale on Mont Brouilly, which at almost eight percent will ensure that only those on top form will be able to challenge.
The climb starts out gentle, but increases in gradient until reaching a tough 9.3 percent. Some riders have shown early season form on finishes such as these, Luis Leon Sanchez of Astana, and Romain Bardet of AG2R for example. Alberto Contador and Richie Porte cannot be excluded either, having both won stages finishing on three kilometre climbs, Bert on Malhao, and Richie on his haunt of Willunga Hill. If anyone aiming for a GC victory can get the ten bonus seconds on offer for this stage, their GC challenge will be bolstered significantly.
Another predominantly flat stage. Kristoff is my pick for this stage it the peloton can catch the break.
This stage looks ideal for a breakaway. It's also very strange. The peloton is riding halfway up Mont Ventoux in the middle of the stage, before a few second category climbs and a flat finish. My stance on this is that if you're going to ride past Mont Ventoux, you may as well finish there. This gives the breakaway a good chance, because if the peloton go quickly up Mont Ventoux, they drop all their team mates. A strong climbing break then. Some names to consider include maybe Roche, Trofimov, Pauwels or Fedrigo.
At last, a proper mountain stage. The climbing is non-stop from start to finish, starting with a 4.5 kilometre climb, going over five more after that before the finish on...
@lavelocipede not the Lance Madone— cyclingchallenge (@cyclingalps) February 29, 2016
Oh, well that's that then. Whatever, it's 15.3 kilometres long, and at five and a half per cent gradient on average. However, it's quite irregular, with two very steep sections.
These steep sections are well placed, right in the middle of the climb and at the very end of the climb. There is a more gentle slope after the steep part in the middle, which should be a very good platform for an attack. This is where the result of the race should be decided, so I'll get to the possible winners later on.
This is a very typical Paris-Nice stage. Chock-full of climbs, with a descent to the finish. And it goes over the Col d'Eze. It's short, and it has Nice in the title. Twice. A break on one of the climbs should manage the victory here.
That's great, but who'll win the race?
The biggest favourite for this race has to be Alberto Contador. He's the only Grand Tour winner riding, and he seemed in form on the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve. The last time he targeted the Tour de France, he was on fantastic form in Tirreno-Adriatico, and the parcours of this race seem to suit him well. The Madone L'Utelle is a long climb, one that will suit his style of riding ahead of that of some of the punchier riders. The prologue shouldn't handicap him too much, and he has strong support in Rafał Majka for the mountains. He's also had success here before...
(PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)
However, it's not all going to be plain sailing for the Spaniard. Defending champion Richie Porte is leading his BMC team, and while he wasn't on top form in Oman, there were some mitigating circumstances there. He stormed the mountain stage and the time trial last year, although against less strong competition. He's made Paris-Nice one of the main targets of his season, and has a strong team with Philippe Gilbert and Rohan Dennis supporting him.
Tom Dumoulin stormed on to the GC stage in last year's Vuelta, and is aiming for Giro success this season. He has also named Paris-Nice as a big target, and rode very well to fourth on the steep Green Mountain in Oman. He has once again chosen to go to the race with the least amount of time-trialling, which seems to be a hindrance to him, but he should take a small advantage over Contador in the prologue. The Madone l'Utelle suits his style too. It is not the steepest of climbs, which will help him. If the Col d'Eze time trial were in this race, he might be my favourite for it, but I just don't really think he can overhaul the rest of the field on such a difficult mountain. A podium spot is achievable.
The French challenge is not lacking either. Romain Bardet had a very strong showing in the Tour of Oman, coming second to Vincenzo Nibali on Green Mountain and in the GC. I'm expecting a lot from Bardet this season, and it all starts here. He is my pick for third on the podium. Pierre Rolland is unlikely to beat him, after transferring from not-great team that wears green #1 to not-great team that wears green #2.
Geraint Thomas leads Sky into the race, and should both contend. Thomas had a very good showing in Algarve, where he won the overall after a very consistent performance. He leads the strongest team in the race, with Roche, Henao and Nieve behind him.
If you want some others to consider, Wilco Kelderman rides, but he didn't climb particularly well in Andalucia, and isn't inspiring me with confidence. Spilak or Zakarin could challenge, but there's nothing to suggest it really. Yes, Spilak came third last year, but there really wasn't a huge competition. He edged out Ruí Costa, who I have even less confidence in. Andrew Talansky could maybe...okay, I can't. Andrew Talansky won't.
Okay, that's my podium. Contador, Porte, Bardet.
Can I watch it?
You shouldn't have any trouble. Eurosport show it, as do most channels.