Nobody ever says "it's only Paris-Nice" when somebody attacks on a mountain or dominates a sprint somewhere in the middle of France in early March, and as a fan of stage racing, that comes as a huge relief to me. I watched the Volta ao Algarve and the Ruta del Sol religiously, because - and I'm aware that this makes me a minority - I live for these kinds of week-long events. All through February then, the idea that riders aren't going to their potential, aren't trying to do anything other than get some miles in the legs or - like many fans, most of whom likely have better judgement than I - flat out don't care about the race in question. The fact that these things are, in all likelihood, mostly true bothers me even further. However, my mind will soon be put at ease by Paris-Nice where - now at least - the whole field is taking it seriously.
That field actually seems a little different to what you might usually find. Yes, there are the French sprinters, the newly-motivated GC types and the Delko-Marseille guys trying to show that they deserve a contract, but unlike in previous years, there are very few cobbles guys using the race to hold on to and tune up their form — Boonen and the rest of the Quickstep specialists are absent, for example, unlike in previous years, with perhaps more teams attracted to Strade Bianche's World Tour points. There's also a whole bunch of dedicated GC teams coming to the race, deeming it slightly less likely that Tirreno-Adriatico to be disrupted by snow.
None of the first three stages will be, in any case. Their biggest discussion point looks to be the scandalously liberal mountain classification system — the towering Côte de Charrecey, reaching 381 metres is rated a category two mountain, apparently only one tiny step away from the 1662 metre Col de la Couillole. Does it make sense? Not in any way. Does anyone care about the mountains jersey in Paris-Nice? Yeah, but they're pretty much all called Duchesne. Anyway, stage one comprises a couple of laps of a suburb in the random town near Paris who've stumped up the fee this year. This year, it's called Bois d'Arcy. At first glance, the yellow jersey looks guaranteed to go to a sprinter, but the penultimate kilometre is at a steady five per cent, so look for attacks off the front from wannabe finisseur winners. Stage two is an even flatter affair than its predecessor, but it runs perpendicular to the wind set to hit on Monday, so watch out for that. Stage three includes the terrifying category two climb, but it's twenty-six kilometres from the finish, so it looks like one likely sprint, and two guaranteed ones.
So what sprinters will be in attendance? Well, in a roughly even split of the top fastmen, this race gets Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, Nacer Bouhanni, Dylan Groenewegen and Arnaud Démare as the headliners. None of them are likely to win stage one, which I'll say Michael Matthews wins, but for two and three they should be the people to fight out the victories. While Bouhanni hasn't had quite such a good start to the season as he had in 2016, I'm still picking him to do well here — I think he's faster than Greipel when he's on form, and I don't know if I can say anything positive about Marcel Kittel given how off-form he was in Paris-Nice last year. Mind you, if Kittel is on form, he will of course beat out the entire field whenever he gets a chance.
There'll be no chance for any sprinter on stage four, however. This stage takes the form of a very tricky time-trial, comprising eleven kilometres of flat road before the three-kilometre, very irregular ascent of Mont Brouilly.
It will be very interesting to see the strategy of the different GC riders for this stage — a time-trial bike would provide a huge advantage in the eleven flat kilometres, but that means throwing away half a minute for a bike change. Because of this, it's likely we'll see a good few riders taking the safer option of equipping their road bike with tri-bars and hoping to make up the time they'll lose on the flat when their rivals are making the change. Any time gained on this stage could be vital to a GC victory, and the stage winner will likely inherit the leader's yellow jersey.
Stage five can be grouped in with the other sprint stages. There's an even more generous category two climb, but it's the last bit of climbing of the day, peaking thirty-five kilometres from the finish. Expect the same people to fight out the day's victory.
On Friday comes the first mountain stage of the weekend's three, where the race really hots up. Stage six, to Fayence is perhaps the gentlest of those three, but with three first-category climbs and a hilltop finish in a place you might be familiar with, it should reduce the GC down to the top contenders, while not being totally decisive.
History tells us that it should come down to an uphill sprint between whoever can get over the earlier climbs, with some of the heavier guys not necessarily excluded. Zdenek Stybar, for example, finished third on the same finish (although with only one passage over the category one Col de Bourigaille) on a fast 2014 stage. Look out for Quickstep's duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin, in addition to Diego Ulissi.
They'll be right behind Alejandro Valverde.
Stage seven was a risk taken by the organisers, and one that looks to have paid off. The Col de Couillole brings the race to 1678 metres above sea level, heights never reached by this race in the past, bringing with them a risk of snow. Fortunately, I can tell you that the road is free of snow at the minute, and there is no precipitation at all forecast in the area. That means that in all likelihood, this stage will go ahead:
The Col de Vence, location of numerous Paris-Nice escapades in the past is summitted in the first thirty kilometres, following an even more egregious category two. Those early slopes should be of no interest to the GC battle, but that fight will be on from the feed zone onwards. While the Col Saint-Martin is officially only seven kilometres long, the road rises out of Utelle and from then on only gets steeper. Reportedly, the descent of the climb is technical too.
The main attraction, however, is the Col de la Couillole, rising out of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée for almost sixteen kilometres at a fairly regular seven-or-eight per cent.
This climb stands out from other summit finishes used in Paris-Nice in recent years. We've had La Madone d'Utelle (far less steep than the Couillole), Croix de Chaubouret (far shorter) and Montagne De Lure (less steep and shorter). None have split the race up by more than the few seconds by which Paris-Nice is almost always won — the last time second place was more than a minute behind the victor, that victor was wearing a Gerolsteiner jersey. However, it's a very viable possibility that the winner could use such a long and difficult climb to take that much time over an off-form field, especially if that winner had performed well in the time-trial.
Once again, there's no Col d'Eze time-trial to conclude the race, but the famous climb is the last ascent before the finish in Nice, concluding a 115 kilometre jaunt through the hills around Nice. If the GC is still up for grabs, which it usually is at this point, expect attacks anywhere on the course.
So who'll win the GC? While you've got Sergio Henao, Romain Bardet, Steven Kruijswijk, Ion Izagirre,
Alejandro Valverde, Dan Martin and Julian Alaphilippe kicking around looking for very, very attainable high GC positions, I think there are just three people capable of winning this race: Alberto Contador, Ilnur Zakarin and Richie Porte.
I feel that out of those, Zakarin is the one who needs the most defence, so I'll start with him. We know well from the 2015 Tour de Romandie what standard of a hilly time-trial he can do. We know from last year that he can hit this race with good form: he won the summit finish in 2016. We know from last week that he's climbing well: he finished second in the Abu Dhabi Tour. I think that he's been ever so slightly underestimated ever since winning Romandie two years ago (not that he was overestimated beforehand) and that any day he could win another top stage race, perhaps starting here.
Contador's ability to win this race speaks for itself: he's won the race twice, he's been aggressive in the early season, mindgames with Nairo Quintana excluded, and he's said outright that he's targeting this race. You know Contador means business when he says outright that he's not injured, not sick and not bored, so we can expect a few attacks from the Spaniard, especially if he doesn't finish stage seven in yellow. The time-trial seems to suit him perfectly, the high mountain finish equally so, and the lack of Quintana or Froome most of all.
Then we have Richie Porte. After finally winning ochre back (kind of) home, he heads into this race with expectation on his shoulders. What sort of expectation? I don't think anyone's really sure anymore. On his day, I believe wholeheartedly that Porte is the equal of anyone in the mountains. However, his day doesn't come as often as he might like, and a day where he fades to nothing is all too common for such a talent. That said, he has also won Paris-Nice twice before, which removes some of the pressure. He is also now the undisputed leader of BMC, which must also help. He's done no European racing this season, so it's difficult to say where his form is, but the course suits him as much as it does Contador. You know what? I'm betting on him to make it three.