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The preliminaries are behind us. Winter training is over. With Paris-Nice this weekend, and Tirreno-Adriatico next week, the season’s first serious stage races click into gear.
That’s not to say the early season races haven’t had their moments. From the Santos Tour Down Under to last weekend’s Abu Dhabi Tour, the intensity of racing reveals just how serious teams and riders are taking each opportunity on the international calendar.
Yet the “Race to the Sun,” celebrating its 75th edition this year, holds a unique place in the hearts of many traditionalists. It marks the “real” opener of the stage race calendar, and over the years, some of the sport’s biggest names have won the French race.
The GC battle should be a doozy, with Paris-Nice drawing its best GC field in years. Two-time winner Richie Porte (BMC Racing) makes his European debut after winning the Santos Tour Down Under to open his season, and will be among the favorites to take the treble.
Hot on his heels will be a motivated Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), keen to make up for a one-second loss to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) at Ruta del Sol in February. After racing the Abu Dhabi Tour, Contador will be firing at all cylinders, with eyes on overall victory to open his spring racing calendar that also includes the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco. Valverde, hot off his 100th career win last month, has never won Paris-Nice.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) also makes his European debut following starts in Oman and Abu Dhabi. Last year’s Tour de France runner-up is motivated to prove his 2016 season was no fluke, and Paris-Nice opens an ambitious calendar that leads back to July.
Sky brings Colombian national champion Sergio Henao and Wout Poels to fill in for defending champ Geraint Thomas, who is racing Strade Bianche instead.
Nearly every major team brings at least one GC card, with other favorites including Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), and even Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) giving it a stab as GC leader ahead of the Ardennes classics.
Who can win? Paris-Nice is usually won by seconds, not minutes, so the battle is on for every pedal stroke. A time trial in stage 4 and the summit finale in stage 7 are the key battlegrounds. Anyone who isn’t on top form in those stages won’t have much chance of victory.
Sprinters get their chance early
The race hasn’t started in Paris for years, but close is close enough to retain its namesake. Bois-d’Arcy-Nice just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Since 2010, the race has started in the Paris suburb of Yvelines, and in 2017 skips an opening prologue to have three stages well-suited for the peloton’s sprinters.
With the nearby Tirreno-Adriatico becoming more challenging over the past few years, Paris-Nice sees a quality sprint field, led by French stars Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Bryan Coquard (Dimension Data). Alongside them will be Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), and Michael Matthews (Sunweb). After three stages, the sprinters will sit up as the GC battle ramps up.
Stage 4 sees the inclusion of a 14.5km individual time trial that should set up the GC favorites going into the climbing stages. The stage ends atop Mont Brouilly, the summit that was snowed out last year in the wintry stage that raised the ire of the peloton and eventually led to its cancelation. The final 3km kicks up at 7.7 percent, meaning it might be a tad too step for world time trial champion Tony Martin (Katusha). Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) will be another favorite, and will be keen to make up for crashing out of the time trial stage at Ruta del Sol last month.
The GC riders will need to be on the ball, so watch for Contador and Bardet to try to limit their losses. Stage 5 could set up a breakaway, but with the GC still hanging the balance, the sprinters will likely bring this one home.
GC triple jump
The final three stages will determine the GC, and will be the setting for the season’s first real clash between the peloton’s top stars on major European climbs.
Things warm up in the six-climb run to Fayence in the steep hills that typically see a breakaway gunning for the stage while the GC stars keep an eye on each other. The next day’s Cat. 1 summit finale up nearly 16km Col de la Couillole, the highest point ever in the Race to the Sun. The GC will still likely be tight going into the thrilling finale over Col d’Eze, though the finish line on the Promenade de Anglais has been moved in respect of the victims of a terrorist attack there last summer.
Stage 1, March 5: Bois-d’Arcy to Bois-d’Arcy, 148.5km
Stage 2, March 6: Rochefort-en-Yvelines to Amilly, 195km
Stage 3, March 7: Chablis to Chalon-sur-Saône, 190km
Stage 4, March 8: Beaujeu to Mont Brouilly, 14.5km (ITT)
Stage 5, March 9: Quincié-en-Beaujolais to Bouge-de-Péage, 199.5km
Stage 6, March 10: Aubagne to Fayence, 193.5km
Stage 7, March 11: Nice to Col de la Coouillole, 177km
Stage 8, March 12: Nice-Nice, 115.5km