Only two major races are on the European calendar this week, but they’re both doozies.
After some appetizers in far-flung places such as Australia and Qatar, Paris-Nice in France and Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy herald the season’s first “real” stage races of the racing season.
Both serve up heated racing, challenging courses and history to match.
68th Paris-Nice (FRA, HIS)
March 7-14 – France
The annual “Race to the Sun” is France’s most important stage race behind the Tour de France and arguably Europe’s most prestigious stage race after the grand tours.
With its long history and prestigious palmares, Paris-Nice is Europe’s first “real” stage race of the season and usually draws a top field of big names gunning for bragging rights.
It certainly is among Europe’s most glamorous of races, starting near Paris in an eight-day march that ends on the Promenade des Anglais along Nice’s glittering Cote d’Azur.
In between is a mix of rolling stages well-suited for sprinters and breakaway artists, with a healthy dose of mountains that aren’t too hard so early in the season or so demanding that the race is all but decided in one lethal attack.
Instead, the race often comes down to seconds, sometimes won in the opening prologue, and it’s rarely decided until the remnants of the pack roar down the Col d’Eze towering above France’s spectacular Mediterranean Coast and blast into Nice.
Lars Boom (Rabobank) proved he’ll be a name to contend with on the road scene with an impressive prologue victory in a challenging course on Sunday to take the yellow jersey.
Two rolling stages pushing south across the Loire Valley toward Limoges on Tuesday are ideal for the pack’s sprinters. Things will heat up Wednesday in a hilly stage across the Massif Central before Thursday’s uphill finish at Mende.
Whoever grabs the yellow jersey on the “Laurent Jalabert” climb (short at 3.1km at a brisk 9 percent) will be in the driver’s seat to win, but it won’t be easy.
The rolling stage to Aix-en-Provence could see a fairly large group coming in for a sprint if a stage-hunter cannot escape the grip of the pack.
The next day’s seven-climb trek to Tourettes-sur-Loup is the race’s longest and will provide the best chance to try to challenge whoever is in the leader’s jersey. The Cat. 1 Col de Vence (9.7km at 6.6 percent) comes after four hours of racing and should see some major attacks.
Short and explosive, the final, three-climb stage leaves no room for error and there are often final-day shake-ups in the overall standings. Last year, Sylvain Chavanel saw his second place go to Frank Schleck after he skidded out on a descent.
There’s no shortage of contenders. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) got off to a fine start Sunday with third in the opening time trial. 2007 winner Alberto Contador (Astana) is the pre-race favorite, but Paris-Nice always serves up surprises.
Perhaps Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), just three seconds shy of Boom in Sunday’s prologue, could find one more big win in his legs at the ripe age of 38. He’s won on mountainous courses at the Tour of Germany and won the Critérium International five times, so why not?
Prologue, Sunday, March 7: Montfort-l’Amaury-Montfort-l’Amaury, 8km
Stage 1 – Monday, March 8: Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines to Contres, 201.5km
Stage 2 – Tuesday, March 9: Contres to Limoges, 201km
Stage 3 – Wednesday, March 10: Saint-Junien to Aurillac, 208km
Stage 4 – Thursday, March 11: Maurs to Mende, 173.5km
Stage 5 – Friday, March 12: Pernes-les-Fontaines to Aix-en-Provence, 157km
Stage 6 – Saturday, March 13: Peynie to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, 220km
Stage 7 – Sunday, March 14: Nice-Nice, 119km
45th Tirreno-Adriatico (ITA, HIS)
March 10-16 – Italy
The week’s other big offering is Tirreno-Adriatico, the weeklong “Race of Two Seas” in what’s Italy’s counterpart to Paris-Nice.
A favorite with riders preparing for Milan-San Remo, the race is typically as nervous and dangerous – and highly unpredictable – as racing in Italy usually is. Some riders hate the race, especially with its narrow finishes and circuits, but others swear by it.
While Paris-Nice typically offers harder climbs, Tirreno is loaded with short, uphill finishes to hilltop villages and provides a stiff challenge for riders gunning for the overall.
Once again, there is no individual time trial, meaning that the race can come down to time bonuses and placements, making for a nail-biting finale. Michele Scarponi (Androni) won last year in large part due to the absence of a time trial, which in the past favored riders like Andreas Kloden or Fabian Cancellara.
Weather can be unpredictable, but usually pleasant spring weather follows the race except on the transition stage across the backbone of Italy’s boot.
There are plenty of big guns, with world champion Cadel Evans and Alessandro Ballan leading BMC. Cancellara will join Andy Schleck at Saxo Bank, Dutch climber Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and reigning Italian champ Filippo Pozzato will be hunting for a stage win for Katusha.
The sprints should be hotly contested, with riders smelling blood as Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) eases into his season following a setback with a tooth infection that delayed his season debut.
Tyler Farrar will be out to prove his Garmin-Transitions’ set-up train is up to the task while old dogs Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) will be keen to show they still have the kick. Tom Boonen (QuickStep), who usually races Paris-Nice, decided to head to Italy this spring instead.
The man for the GC could be Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), who seems tailored for a stage race like Tirreno.
Stage 1, March 10: Livorno – Rosignano Solvay, 148.00 km
Stage 2, March 11: Montecatini Terme, 165.00 km
Stage 3, March 12: San Miniato – Monsummano Terme, 159.00 km
Stage 4, March 13: San Gemini – Chieti , 243.00 km
Stage 5, March 14 : Chieti – Colmurano, 234.00 km
Stage 6, March 15: Montecosaro – Macerata, 134.00 km
Stage 7, March 16: Civitanova Marche – San Benedetto del Tronto, 164.00 km