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A Paris-Nice edition of the Explainer

Dear Readers,
This week marks the return of both Paris-Nice and of our daily up-to-the-minute Live Coverage of racing. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, due largely to the fact that I get to hear directly from readers throughout each day’s stage. Readers can simply type in comments, observations and questions and those appear right on the control panel, next to where Andrew Hood and I type in the latest news from the road.

Paris-Nice takes riders from the chilly suburbs of Paris to the (hopefully) warm, sandy beaches of Nice. | Graham Watson photo

Despite the fact that cycling is an exciting sport — certainly my favorite — and often filled with drama, even I have to admit that there are certain times when there is a lull in the action. So, on those days when there is a doomed break, with eight minutes on the peloton, but still another 150km to go, readers will often chime in with questions. I thought I’d devote this week’s column to answering a few of those questions. In some cases, I might have answered the question during Live Coverage, but too briefly for my satisfaction.

I’ll start out with a question about the history of Paris-Nice, from reader ” Old Guy,” who asks

“So you keep saying this is the 68th Paris-Nice. When did the race start?”

Well, fellow old fella, the first edition of Paris-Nice was in 1933. Like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, Paris-Nice was originally established for the sole purpose of promoting newspaper sales. As you know, the Tour was started by the owners of L’Auto and later taken over by the publishers of L’Equipe. The Giro was promoted by the owners of Italy’s sports daily, Gazetta dello Sport.

Paris-Nice was the branchild of lbert Lejune, who first promoted the race in 1933. Lejune owned both Le Petit Journal in Paris and Le Petit Niçois in Nice. Lejune really wanted to encourage Parisians to consider Nice as a vacation destination as well, so he promoted his week-long stage race as a reminder that despite the winter-like conditions in other parts of the country, Nice was a warm and pleasant place to spend some time, especially in the spring. His “Race to the Sun” was designed to underscore that point.

It’s kind of hard to imagine that Nice needed that kind of promotion, but it really was a small, sleepy town back in those days.

The race ran uninterrupted from 1933 to 1939 and then was canceled until 1946 because of World War II. That year’s race was organized by the owners of the newspaper Ce Soir, but it faltered and the race was again canceled until 1951, when the owners of Road and Track magazine took over management of the race. While Road and Track ponied up the cash, the resurrected Paris-Nice can credit part of its re-emergence to the Nice mayor, Jean Medecin, who again viewed the race as a way of promoting the community as a warm weather destination for the winter-weary French.

The new Paris-Nice was run by former Road and Track magazine editor, Jean Leulliot, who served as race director from 1951 until his death in 1982. In a sense, the new version of the race was a small family business run by several members of the Leulliot family all the way through the 1990s.  (International Herald Tribune writer Sam Abt offeres far more detail on the Leulliots’ contribution to the race – and to the sport – in his book “Off to the Races: 25 years of cycling journalism.”)

It was in those post-war years that Paris-Nice really began to shine and the list winners looks like a roster of some of cycling’s greatest. The list of Paris-Nice winners is full of Tour de France stars like Jacques Anqutiel, Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk and, of course, Sean Kelly, who won Paris-Nice seven times between 1982 and `88.

When Leulliot died in 1982, his daughter, Josette, took over the helm and ran it through the end of the 1990s. Through financial ups and downs, the future of Paris-Nice was in doubt until it was saved by two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon in 2000, when he managed to put together a group of investors to carry the race through tough times. That deal, though, wasn’t quite enough and Fignon finally decided that the race would be better off being run by Tour de France organizer ASO. The infusion of cash and the logistical expertise of ASO seems to have benefited the race and it appears to be in relatively good financial health.

Reader Mary McDermott wrote in to ask:

“Is Paris-Nice really a good indicator of form for the Tour. How often does the winner of Paris-Nice end up winning the Tour de France that same year?”

Roger Lapébie was the first rider to win both Paris-Nice and the Tour de France in the same year. | AFP file Photo

Well, it’s not a bad indicator, that’s for sure, but it varies from year-to-year. There have certainly been Paris-Nice winners who have won the Tour, but not always in the same year.

Often Tour contenders don’t opt to compete, or their Tour preparation schedule doesn’t necessarily coincide with being a contender for the overall at Paris-Nice.

Alberto Contador sure seems to like the race. He won Paris-Nice in 2007, ahead of his first Tour de France victory that year. He came close (but-for that untimely bonk) last year on his way to Tour No.2. He’s certainly a favorite to win Paris-Nice this year and remains the odds-on pick for a third Tour win in July. Other riders? Let’s take a look.

In 2006, Floyd Landis became only the second American to win Paris-Nice (Bobby Julich won in 2005) and he then went on to stand atop the podium in Paris at the end of the Tour, but that result was eventually negated by a positive drug test. So, according to the record books, that one doesn’t count.

Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 1971 to see coincident wins in both by the same rider in the same year. Eddy Merckx won Paris-Nice in March of that year and then went on to win his third of five Tour titles. Of course, Merckx was pretty much winning everything those days. In fact he had already accomplished the Paris-Nice/Tour double in the previous two years.

Jacques Anquetil, who has five Tours de France to his credit, also won five editions of Paris-Nice. Like Merckx, he doubled-up for three years, winning both races in 1957, 1961 and 1963.

Other than those, I think the only other Tour winner to double up at Paris-Nice in the same year was Roger Lapébie, who won both in 1937.

There are plenty of Tour winners who have had success at Paris-Nice in years other than those in which they won the Tour. Miguel Indurain won Paris-Nice in 1989 and 1990, but that was before his string of five successive Tour wins began in 1991. Louison Bobet, who won three Tours, won only one edition of Paris-Nice, but that happened in 1952, the year before his first victory in the Tour. Interestingly, the year he won his third Tour de France, in 1955, his younger brother Jean won Paris-Nice.

Others include the great Jan Janssen, who won Paris-Nice in 1964, four years ahead of his only Tour de France victory. Stephan Roche won Paris-Nice at the age of 19 in 1981 and then went on to win the Tour in 1987. Joop Zoetemelk won Paris-Nice in 1974, 1975 and 1979 and then scored his only win in the Tour in 1980.

Click for larger image
Do not mess with Bernie. | AFP file photo

One other winner of note, of course, is Tom Simpson who won Paris-Nice in 1967. He was among the big favorites to win the big one that year, too, but Simpson died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux on July 13th, the 13th stage of that year’s Tour.

As I mentioned above, there are plenty of Tour winners who raced in, but never won, Paris-Nice. Fignon, who came to the race’s rescue in 2000, was among those. His old teammate Bernard Hinault, too, made regular appearances in the Race to the Sun, but never won it. (Okay, okay, I admit it. The only reason I mentioned that last one is because it gives me an excuse to include this terrific shot of Hinault tussling with demonstrators at the 1984 edition of Paris-Nice. Yeah, I’ll concede that it’s gratuitous, but you have to admit that it’s not your usual guy-on-a-bike racing shot.)

Reader Dean, in Harrisburg wrote in to ask

“how did VN decide on which race (Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico ) to cover ‘LIVE’ this week?”

I guess it is a question of time and resources. Of the two, Paris-Nice attracts a stronger field of Tour contenders and it’s often seen as an early indication of those riders’ early season form.

Given that those races are being contested at almost the same time — since both are in the same Central European time zone — it would be hard for us to do both. It’s worth mentioning, though, we will not be facing the same dilemma come May, when the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia will be happening concurrently for a week. Given the nine-hour time difference, we’ll have no trouble offering Live Coverage of both. Of course, that may mean that those of you tuning in from the office will really not be getting a lot of work done on those days.

Uhhhh, sorry `bout that.

Reader William wrote in to ask

“What’s the status of radios at Paris-Nice this year? I thought I read that they are banned by the UCI now.”

The UCI ban extends only to lower-level events, those that do not have a UCI Category 1 or hors catégorie sanction from the international governing body. While there is a movement to ban race radios in all events, the response from ProTour riders has been mixed at best.

You might recall that the Tour had planned to ban radios on two stages in last year’s race. The uproar was such that they left it at just one stage and the issue is still the subject of some debate at this point.

Follow-up: As a follow-up to last week’s column (see “Why regulate at all?), I wanted to thank those readers who reminded me that the UCI first tried to spell out the underlying philosophy to its technical rules in a document released almost 14 years ago.

The Management Committee of the UCI was beginning to wrestle with the question of technology and at a meeting held in conjunction with the 1996 world championships in Lugano, Switzerland, issued a one-page document known as “The Lugano Charter.” I have to admit, that one slipped my mind.

While very short on specifics, the Charter does attempt to outline the UCI’s general philosophy on bikes and bike design. You can tell by reading it that these guys were really bothered by the rapid rate of development in the sport:

The bicycle is losing its “user-friendliness” and distancing itself from a reality which can be grasped and understood. Priority is increasingly given to form. The performance achieved depends more on the form of the man-machine ensemble than the physical qualities of the rider, and this goes against the very meaning of cycle sport.

Whatever that all means. Anyway, it makes for an interesting read. It’s short and maybe someone out there can make a bit more sense of it than I can. Thanks again for the heads up and the reminder.


Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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