Pop quiz, hotshot. What links Michael Woods and Alejandro Valverde right now?
Partial credit if you think it is their one-two finish in the inaugural Gran Camino.
The real answer is that if you take our season-opening FSA-DS rankings as a proxy for rider quality, they are the only two uninjured riders on the first page who aren’t at one of the two stage races running through next week. Of course, both are recovering from racing in another entertaining stage race (full marks, Spain. All the weeks on the calendar to restore one of your exhausted races, and you chose to throw a new race into the most crowded period on the calendar. Bravo!) that only recently wrapped up.
Add Peter Sagan (and the injured Egan Bernal and Mathieu van der Poel, plus possibly Pidcock if he hasn’t recovered from his bout of sickness) and you have the full list of riders not taking part in one race or other, and worth at least twelve points.
My point, and it is scarcely original, is that this is the week of the year when everyone rides. There isn’t really another one. With the northern classics guys putting the finishing touches to their training, the Ardennes guys ramping up, and GC specialists having a first or second block of racing as they prep for targets in May or July, it is a time that suits everyone. The courses are always good, the racing often spectacular, and the sense of excitement profound.
One thing that does change is the preference of riders between the races. For a while PN was the classics prep (worse weather, varied terrain, history) and TA was the GC boys playground (higher snow-free roads, better hotels, warmer). The big thing that’s changed is the advent of Strade Bianche. Nowadays the bulk of classics guys want to be in Sienna, and accordingly go on to TA, leaving the bulk of the GC boys in France. There are exceptions (Wout van Aert is supporting Roglic in Paris-Nice this year, and Pog is going for the SB/TA double, as the boss noted) but that’s the general trend. The “race SB and go to PN overnight” angle is something that works in computer games and using the “Sean Kelly rode Roubaix and the Basque Country” argument, but we won’t be seeing it in real life in 2022.
So, with admirable equanimity, both courses have evolved to suit their start lists. Sure, there’s a mountain stage in TA, but there’s plenty for the classics boys to work with. Meanwhile, Paris-Nice serves up challenging courses with plenty of climbing to reflect the climber/sprinter dynamic in their field.
As an aside, for the last few years PN has been among the most exciting races on the calendar and I see nothing in this year’s stage profiles or startlist to suggest the level of entertainment will drop. I made the time to write this preview mainly because I’m really looking forward to the race to the sun.
What follows is a picture-heavy profile of both courses, and a quick look at some of the likelier winners. There are plenty more who could be considered, because next week, everyone is riding.
Paris - Nice
Stage One - The race summary has this down as a flat stage. That must be a comparative rather than a literal definition. It’ll be tough for sprinters to cling on through the closing laps or get back on towards the end, and this has the potential to be an exciting sprinter vs breakaway finsih.
Stage Two - By far the flattest day of the race, the course heads due south, so don’t be surprised if we see wind and echelons, often a feature of early stages of this race. If not, this one should be a straightforward bunch gallop.
Stage Three - Another “flat” stage, this one finishes with a pretty challenging uphill drag. It’ll alter the dynamic of the sprint, but I think we should see a big group fighting it out at the finish.
Stage Four - Welcome to the 2022 Paris-Nice, where even the time trial finishes with a kick. As you can see, this is far from a pure power TT and that closing 700m will sting, but there’s enough here for the power boys to get some separation. We’ll be starting to see a spread on GC by the end of the day.
Stage Five - Another hilly day and the question will be who seeks to control the race, and why. Lots and lots of climbing but not an especially tough finish. If this were week three of a Grand Tour I’d just say “breakaway stage” and move on, but that probably isn’t an option for GC contenders here. I don’t quite know what to expect, but the riders will make the race on this canvas.
Stage Six - As with stage five, there’s enough here to cause some separation but it isn’t a pure climbers’ course. The final climb is long but not particularly tough and I think we’ll see a biggish group at the end, though it depends on the weather and on whether anyone is willing to risk burning matches, ahead of...
Stage Seven - the Queen stage and the only mountaintop finish. We’re not in the high alps - they’re still covered in skiers - but there’s enough here to cause some serious separation. This is a marginally shorter and easier version of the 2019 queen stage, which was won by Daniel Martinez ahead of Miguel Lopez as the early escape stayed clear on an odd and chaotic day. The main field was well spread down the mountain and we can expect that to be repeated even if they come to the foot of the final climb with fewer ascents in their legs.
Stage Eight - A typically harum-scarum final stage of this race, and how it plays out will depend on the GC coming in. There’s a lot of the 2017 finish about this. David de la Cruz lead home a Spanish 1-2-3 (Contador and Soler) who were a few seconds clear of an elite group of 18 with the rest of the field coming in separated by ages.
The sprint stages will give us another chance to watch Philipsen vs Groenwegen vs Bennett, this time with added Jakobsen. Stage three could see fast-finishing classics riders (Trentin, van Aert, Pedersen) getting involved but I think it might be flat enough for Philipsen to prevail, whilst I like Jakobsen in stage two and, if he gets over the climbs, stage one. The first could be the most interesting. Don’t forget Biniyam Ghirmay who is another who will enjoy the stage three challenge.
I suspect that the TT will be hilly enough and tricky enough that Roglic and Almeida will finish ahead of Kung and Bissgger who are the pure power riders. They’ll want to put time into the climbers ahead of the end of the race. Watch out for van Aert crashing the party here, too. I haven’t a clue what’ll happen on stages five and six but I’ll give the former to a breakaway group (Colbrelli to win, perhaps) and the latter to Jakobsen in a sprint.
Stage seven is where the pure climbers will try and come back at the GC leaders. I imagine the Yates boys will be right up there with Vlasov, Gaudu, Alemeida, Quintana and more. I’ll give Adam the win. Stage eight will be all about trying to steal a few seconds and I think the in-form Quintana might steal a march. Put it all together and this preview says that Almeida will spring a semi-surprise over Roglic and Yates - he’s in form and this is one of the few races he’ll get to ride for himself.
Stage One - A pan-flat 14km time trial. Oddly it opens the race rather than closing it, but we know what we’re getting and there’s little mystery as to who the favourites will be.
Stage Two - Despite a few climbs, this is one of three stages that should suit the sprinters in the field. Looks a pretty tranquil run-in.
Stage Three - This is the second stage that looks suited to the sprinters. I hope they enjoy it, because they’ll suffer before they get another go.
Stage Four - Now this is a classics stage. 200km and barely a flat road in sight. They’ll get two preliminary looks at this finishing climb and then it is straight up to the end. Tough, but could be tougher.
Stage Five - See what I mean? Tougher. Only 155km but still a great deal of leg-ache, with an entirely brutal finishing climb to the finish. This will be lots of fun to watch and will cause some serious separation.
Stage Six - The Queen stage and probably decisive for GC. The climb of Monte Carpegna is relatively short for a main mountain pass, though the field will take it twice before descending to a finishing kick into Carpegna itself. Of more importance is just how challenging this climb is, averaging over 10% for over 5km. This is Marco Pantani’s training climb and nobody will be surprised to see the mountain goats skipping away from the classics guys.
Stage Seven - This looks like a bit of a procession with a flat finishing loop and a chance for the sprinters to have a third crack at glory before the week’s prizes are handed out.
When in doubt, pick Pogacar. I’m not in much doubt and am happy to pick him, with the climbs on stage six just too tough for most of his opposition. His monument successes last year show that he’s unlikely to get left behind on stages four and five and he’ll be among the favourites for the TT. So there’s my winner.
Back to the start, and Ganna and Bjerg are the real specialists for a ride this flat, with the former my pick to be the first in blue. The likes of Asgreen, Evenepoel and even Alaphilippe might get close on a course as short and flat as this one.
When the sprinters take over it looks like being Cavendish and Merlier to the fore. Ackermann will hope to improve on a weak showing in the UAE whilst Viviani and Nizzolo will be trying to shine on home roads. Youth is represented by Olav Kooij, among others, who was getting better as the UAE Tour went on and if better positioned could spring a surprise. I think Cav might grab two of the three and Merlier the other. Deliciously, if it goes as I predict here and at PN, it would leave the four best sprinters of the spring sharing two teams, and the fur will really start to fly.
I have Alaphilippe as favourite for stages four and five, with the latter in particular looking tailormade for him. Classics studs like Asgreen, Matthews, and Benoot will enjoy stage four and the tougher finish to stage five should suit Wellens and Mohoric, inter alia.
Among those looking to climb with Pogacar perhaps Vingegaard, riding for himself in the absence of Roglic, is the most interesting. Young Evenepoel is another who’ll be close and is a threat here and for the overall. Lopez, Mas and Porte will be among those trying to prove that climbing isn’t exclusively the preserve of riders in their early twenties. I suspect they’ll be among the riders who are closest on the line but I see Pog winning this stage as well as the overall.
Who’ve you got?