By Andrew Hood

Paris-Nice: Sometimes it really qualifies as a race to the sun.
Paris-Nice: Sometimes it really qualifies as a race to the sun.

Photo: Graham Watson

There’s not a lot on the menu this week in terms of choice. What Europe lacks in quantity this week is certainly made up for in quality, however.

Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico serve up the season’s first major European stage races and provide the first glimpse of who’s strong in 2009.

Victories at either one of these two prestigious races can make a season, and sometimes a career, for the victors. Winners coming out of France and Italy this week usually figure very high in both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Paris-Nice is a major goal for GC riders, especially among the French, while Tirreno-Adriatico is a proving ground for sprinters hoping for glory down the Via Roma at Milan-San Remo next weekend.

With no racing at all in Spain, Belgium or Switzerland (the five-day Volta ao Distrito de Santarém in Portugal has been cancelled), so all eyes are on these two “historic calendar” events.

Continuing to March 15

67th Paris-Nice (Fra, HIS)
Albert Contador won Sunday’s opening 9.3km individual time trial in Amilly to let everyone know he’s the man to beat in this week’s main attraction.

Contador will have fond memories of the 2007 edition, when he relegated Davide Rebellin to runner-up status after riding away the maillot jaune in a final-day battle over the Co d’Eze. Contador attacked late to win the stage and snatch away the overall, a victory that heralded his unexpected 2007 Tour win.

Astana was excluded from last year’s Paris-Nice and Tour, a controversial decision that robbed Contador the chance of defending his yellow jersey, but opened the door for his historic Giro-Vuelta double in 2008.

Last year’s defending champion Rebellin isn’t back, with his Italian squad, Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli, racing Tirreno-Adriatico instead.

Dating back to 1933, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” is arguably France’s most important stage race behind the Tour de France.

Amaury Sport Organisation, the same company that produces such races as the Tour and Paris-Roubaix, bought the race from former Tour winner Laurent Fignon in 2002.

While the Dauphiné Libéré trumps Paris-Nice with its big cols in the Alps that regularly draw many of the top stars heading to the Tour, Paris-Nice remains a prestigious race, especially among the French riders.

There are usually two GC battles going on, one of the maillot jaune and another with the French riders fighting each other to win top national rider honors. The last Frenchman to stand at the highest rung on the podium was Laurent Jalabert, who claimed the last of his three consecutives wins in 1997.

Despite its name, Paris-Nice usually doesn’t in Paris. For years, the race started near the offices of the L’Equipe newspaper in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb south of Paris. Last year, the race kicked off in Amilly with a prologue. Amilly also hosted Sunday’s start with an individual time trial.

The race finishes in one of cycling’s most spectacular settings along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, ideally under a warm, spring sun.

Sean Kelly holds the record with a remarkable seven consecutive victories from 1982-88.

Two Americans are among the winners, with Bobby Julich taking an exciting victory in his successful 2005 season and Floyd Landis winning in 2006.

Alexandre Vinokourov won 2002-03, the final coming in an emotional struggle to win in the memory of compatriot Andrei Kivilev, who died of a head injury after crashing in stage 2 without a helmet. The UCI later introduced a rule requiring helmets except at the end of summit finishes. That rule has since been amended to require their use at all times.

After being hampered by snow the past few years, organizers skirted the Massif Central and stick closer to the Rhone Valley this year as the route pushes south toward the Mediterranean.

This year’s course summits the Cat. 1 Montagne de Lure, dubbed Mont Ventoux’s “little sister.” Located north of Forclaquier, the climb (13.8km at 6.6%) has never been used before in international competition.

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Wednesday to Tuesday, March 11-17

43rd Tirreno-Adriatico (Ita, HIS)
Just about every sprinter with ambitions of winning Milan-San Remo (March 21) is lining up for this year’s “Race of the Two Seas.”

Among the stellar field are Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad), Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam), Daniele Bennati (Lampre), Robbie McEwen (Katusha) and Alessandro Petacchi (LPR).

The seven-day race is Italy’s most important stage race behind the Giro d’Italia and plenty of riders are bucking for the overall title.

GC favorites include Andreas Kloden (Astana), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Thomas Dekker (Silence-Lotto), Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni), Linus Gerdemann (Milram), Filippo Pozzato and Christian Pfannberger (both Katusha), Monte Paschi winner Thomas Lovkvist (Columbia-Highroad) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank).

Defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) isn’t expected to be at his best following a shoulder injury from a training crash last month. The big Swiss time machine is admittedly behind in his training miles and is desperately trying to regain shape in time for the northern classics.

Oscar Freire, the 2005 winner, is still recovering from injuries suffered at the Tour of California and will not race.

The race starts Wednesday in Cecina along the Tyrrhenian Coast. After three days in Tuscany, the race transfers to the western side of Italy’s boot along the Adriatic Sea for the final four stages.

The abrupt Montelupone hilltop finish, with ramps as steep as 21 percent, is back on the menu for Saturday’s fourth stage.

The following day’s 30km individual time trial from Loreto to Macerata should go a long way toward crowning the winner.

On both ends of these two decisive stages, it’s a sprinter’s paradise. It’s going to be a blast to watch these guys hook elbows all week.

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