Photography by James Startt
Almost by default, Paris-Nice has suddenly become the marquee cycling event this March. On the heels of the cancellation of the epic Strade Bianche, and the historic Tirreno-Adriatico races in Italy due to the COVID-19 crisis, the French race has suddenly bolstered its start list. Of course Paris-Nice has also struggled, as numerous WorldTour teams announced this week that they were simply suspending their racing calendar due to the many complications of this pandemic. But the event has also gained last-minute entries from top international stars like Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet, and Elia Viviani.
While this year’s Paris-Nice appears likely to start on Sunday, March 8, its arrival a week later in Nice is far from certain. The French government is closely monitoring the spread of the virus, and expects that the risk assessment in the near future could halt mass sporting events like Paris-Nice. Just on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron met with health authorities to evaluate the crisis, and according to the French daily LeMonde, one of the medical experts on hand, Jean-François Delfraissy, said clearly that the French risk factor would be elevated to Stage 3 “in the next few days—one or two weeks maximum.”
Year in and year out, Paris-Nice is affectionately called “The Race to the Sun,” as the week-long stage race makes it way down through the heart of France to the Mediterranean Sea, noted for its abundance of sunshine. But this year is quite different, and the race simply hopes to survive until Nice—where it is scheduled to finish on March 15—and not be aborted mid-way through the eight-day event, like the recent UAE Tour.
If Paris-Nice actually makes it all the way to Nice, it once again offers one of the most well-balanced, week-long stage races in the world, and because it travels across much of a country and not just a region, it possesses more than a hint of the three-week Tour de France.
Since its inception in 1933, Paris-Nice has simply earned a reputation as one of the most complete week-long races on the calendar, starting with flat, often windswept stages that favor sprinters in the opening days, a mid-week time trial and then and increasingly mountainous finale as the race arrives along the country’s southern coast. The race attracts a top-tier peloton, and often its laureats go on to win the Tour de France.
Sprinters this year include Australian Caleb Ewan, Irishman Sam Bennett, Germans John Degenkolb and Pascal Ackermann, French speedsters Nacer Bouhanni, Rudy Barbier and Bryan Coquard and, along with Viviani and Sagan, the overall contenders include Australian Richie Porte, American Tejay Van Garderen, Colombians Nairo Quintana and Sergio Higuita, and of course French riders Julian Alaphilippe, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Guillaume Martin.
While climbs litter the final stages—including a summit finish on La Colmiane outside of Nice that will be featured in the start of this year’s Tour—any rider hoping to win this year’s race will have to negotiate the 15.5-kilometer time trial around Saint-Amand-Montrond, a stage that will favor complete riders like Van Garderen or Porte, not to mention Alaphilippe, who was born and raised in the small town in central France.
Riders’ early-season readiness is never easy to estimate: both Pinot and Alaphilippe admit they are far from top condition. Others, however, have produced convincing results already. Nairo Quintana won the Tour de la Provence and the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, while his countryman Higuita won the Tour of Colombia. Meanwhile, Richie Porte, winner in here 2013 and 2015, scored a resounding victory in the Tour Down Under, in January. He lives much of the year in Monaco and knows the climbs along the Mediterranean Coast well. Porte’s time trialing skills could make him the rider to beat.
But first, Paris-Nice has to make it all the way to Nice.
Stage 1: Plaisir to Plaisir (154 km)
Stage 2: Chevreuse to Chalette-sur-Loing (166.5 km)
Stage 3: Chalette-sur-Loing to Le Châtre (214km)
Stage 4: Saint-Amand-Montrond TT (15.5 km)
Stage 5: Gannant to La Côte Saint André (227 km)
Stage 6: Sorgues to Abt (161.5 km)
Stage 7: Nice to Valdeblore La Colmiane (166.5 km)
Stage 8: Nice to Nice (113.5 km)