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Paris-Nice: First sprinter’s shootout of 2016

Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff, and André Greipel headline a strong roster of sprinters set to take on Paris-Nice

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PARIS (VN) — The preliminaries are over. After blowing out the cobwebs in the far corners of the globe, Paris-Nice presents the season’s first major shootout between the peloton’s fastest men.

It’s one thing to pad the stats in January or February in Australia or Dubai, but winning a stage in the “Race to the Sun” counts for something. Domination in the sprints in Europe’s first major stage can set the tone for an entire season.

The field is impressive enough: comeback kid Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick–Step), former Milano-Sanremo champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), last year’s Tour de France dominator André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal), ­wanna-be Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), season-debuter Michael Matthews (Orica – GreenEdge), and new Cannondale signing Wouter Wippert. It should be quite a battle.

“We have a very strong team, and we hope to come out of the race with a stage victory,” said Etixx sport director Tom Steels. “Marcel is our main bet for this.”

This week’s Paris-Nice should see two, maybe three sprints over eight days of racing. Even in what is a very mountainous edition of the French stage race, sprinters will have their chances.

Following Sunday’s prologue, sprinters will have an open road to the line in stage 1 (even though organizers threw in some gravel roads toward the finale). Stage 2 finishes on an uphill that might not suit the purest of sprinters. Crosswinds, lumpy terrain, and rain (with inevitable crashes) could disrupt the trains, but it’s unlikely breakaways will stay clear in the opening two stages. Stage 4 is another opportunity for the peloton’s fastest kickers keen not to miss one of the ever-decreasing chances for bunch finishes across the season.

The big showdown will be between Kittel and Kristoff, who are going head to head for the first time in 2016. Both are intent on proving they are back at their best.

The Norwegian had a huge spring campaign last year, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and GP Scheldeprijs, but was flat in the Tour de France, going home without one victory. Kittel, meanwhile, limped through a disastrous, illness-plagued 2015 with only one win all year. Both are already flying. Kittel’s shift to Etixx seems to be paying off in spades. Trimmer than he’s ever been before, he’s lost none of his speed, and he’s won three stages and the overall at the Dubai Tour already. Kristoff looks doubly determined, and winning five stages so far.

Greipel will also be motivated to prove that last year’s Tour de France — where he won four stages, including the prestigious gallop down the Champs-Élysées — was no fluke. He took two wins early at the Mallorca Challenge, but was manhandled by Kittel at the Volta ao Algarve, only to crash in stage 4 at the Portuguese race. Suffering from a fractured rib, Greipel was forced to skip Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last weekend.

“Our first goal is to win a stage with André,” said Lotto sport director Herman Frison. “We’ll have to wait how well he’s recovered from his rib fracture. André needed to rest for about two weeks so [he] misses race rhythm. Also for Marcel Sieberg that’s the case, his lead-out. He had to rest a few weeks as well. They were both able to do some good trainings, but we’ll have to see how they’ll perform during the race.”

Expect to see Bouhanni trying to elbow his way into the mix as well. The fearless Frenchman, once an amateur boxer, isn’t afraid to take risks, and he wants to prove he deserves a spot at the table with the big boys. He has yet to win a stage at the Tour de France and had a crash-riddled season last year, but he’s come into 2016 with improving form, scoring his first win at the Ruta del Sol and taking third at KBK.

Add “Bling,” aka Matthews, who is making his season debut, and the three sprint opportunities at Paris-Nice should be palpating. Matthews can win in lumpier terrain, and get over the climbs better than the likes of Kittel and Greipel. So close to major wins — second at the worlds and third at both Milano-Sanremo and Amstel Gold Race — Matthews should be firing on all cylinders.

“Michael started his season at Paris-Nice last year. He is a rider who is training really well and is professional during the off season, and we saw last year he was ready to race here,” said Orica sport director Lorenzo Lapage. “I think he is prepared for a good Paris-Nice again.”

Cannondale is also hoping for big things from Wippert, who’s been close to a win with two podiums so far this season.

“Wouter is getting very close to that point where he pulls off something big,” said Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters. “He tends to go big, or go home. He’s going to be sprinting for the win — he’s going to take big risks to get that. He’s not one of those sprinters who’s going to be ‘in the wheels, in the wheels, OK, he got third again.’ He always tries to come off the wheel. Sometimes that hurts him from getting placings, because he’s totally focused on the win.”

Even more important, Paris-Nice is the first chance for the peloton to see where everyone stacks up coming into the spring classics season. A lot will be on the line, especially with Milano-Sanremo waiting just down the road from Nice, on March 19.

Paris-Nice is just the taster of what should be a great season of sprints. Although Rio de Janeiro served up a climber’s course for the 2016 Olympic Games, the sprinters will have their shot at the rainbow jersey in October on a flat, windy worlds course in Qatar. Gentleman, start your engines.