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Preview: Van Garderen, Gesink, Talansky primed for Paris-Nice showdown

Paris-Nice (March 3-10) is arguably the most prestigious and most telling of the early-season stage races. It’s challenging to target for general classification, as riders have to battle against crosswinds, cold, and even snow at times. There is always a competitive field, and because it’s the beginning of the season, riders sometimes come up short on stamina. Often likened to a mini-Tour de France, Paris-Nice features every type of terrain and road discipline wrapped up into a week of intense racing — after which the winner and the runner-up are often separated by only a handful of seconds.

This year, in the 71st edition of the race, with dominating all-rounders such as reigning Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky) opting not to defend his Paris-Nice title and teammate Chris Froome racing Tirreno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice looks set for a hotly contested battle for stage victories, UCI points, and overall glory.

Backed by a strong BMC Racing team, American Tejay van Garderen, fifth last year and the best young rider, heads to France with his sights set on winning his first professional stage race.

“My climbing was good in the Tour de San Luis, and I feel it has only improved,” van Garderen said in a team statement this week. “Plus, the type of climbs we will see in Paris-Nice suit my ability.”

With Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) joining Froome for a showdown at Tirreno and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) skipping Paris-Nice van Garderen is the top finisher from the 2012 Tour on the startlist.

That said, two men with race wins in their palmares — Robert Gesink (Blanco) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) — are also targeting the top step of the podium in Nice.

Gesink most recently triumphed at the 2012 Amgen Tour of California, capping his return from a broken femur; Talansky won the five-stage Tour de l’Ain in August. The Dutchman was sixth overall at the Vuelta a España last season, with Talansky less than a minute behind him in seventh.

“Last year, winning l’Ain was big. The difference between winning a race and the other two guys on the podium is massive. And that difference is sometimes mental,” Talansky told VeloNews. “This year, I want to focus on the mindset of winning. That doesn’t mean I am going to win those races, but I do want to go to those races with the mindset that I am going there to win.”

Talansky is aiming for a Tour debut, Gesink for the Giro, and each would like a Paris-Nice title on his rap sheet.

“For Paris-Nice I am surrounded by strong guys,” Gesink said in a press release. “Especially our youngsters, [Wilco] Kelderman and [Steven] Kruijswijk helping me on the climbs. Working with these guys could set the standard for the rest of the year. I keep good memories of Paris-Nice and will start with confidence.”

Many greats of the sport — Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Sean Kelly, Miguel Indurain, Alberto Contador — keep good memories of the “Race to the Sun.” It’s also the second round of the WorldTour and precious points are up for grabs. Paris-Nice is a perfect test to see whether one’s off-season training has paid off, and where more work needs to be done ahead of the classics and the grand tours.

The weather in early March can surprise the riders — anyone for snow in the morning and sunshine in the afternoon? Last year, one of the most decisive moments of the race came on what looked to be a ho-hum stage 2 to Orléans when, halfway through, wintry crosswinds battered the peloton and split it into several groups, effectively eliminating contenders like Denis Menchov (Katusha) and Janez Brajkovic (Astana), who were caught out.

In the long list of cycling greats who’ve won Paris-Nice, Ireland’s Sean Kelly, “Mr. Paris-Nice,” holds the record for most victories with seven in a row, from 1982 to 1988, followed by Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, who won five editions between 1957 and 1966. France has claimed top honors on 21 occasions and Belgium 14.

Does a good ride down to Nice translate into success later in the season? It’s hard to say as the history is mixed, but if last year’s edition was any indication, the answer is clearly yes. Wiggins’ overall victory at Paris-Nice set him up for a super-successful season in which he became the first rider to also win the Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné, and Tour de France, before picking up a gold medal in the time trial at the London Olympics. If nothing else, Paris-Nice helped establish Wiggins early on as the man to beat in 2012. He followed through, but will the 2013 champion follow suit?

Death in Saint-Chamond, and a Legacy

In the 2003 Paris-Nice, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev crashed heavily on the second stage, suffering a skull fracture. Kivilev was not wearing a helmet, which at the time was not compulsory, and he died the next morning. After Kivilev’s death, and because of other safety concerns voiced by the sport’s governing body, the UCI’s campaign to make helmets mandatory was re-launched, and, after some initial resistance, all riders were wearing them within a year or so.

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