Paris-Nice should see battle royale

Tour-like field making start Sunday near Paris

Race results

Complete coverage of the 2012 Paris-Nice

It’s only early March, but if the early-season fireworks have been any indication, next week’s Paris-Nice should be a real doozy.

Gone are the days that pros use spring stage-races as warm-ups for larger goals later in the season. With so much at stake with the new points ranking system, not to mention a higher level across the board and increased pressure to produce results from cycling’s well-funded “super teams,” races like Paris-Nice that might have been relatively viewed as spring-time jaunts to the Mediterranean Coast have turned into primary goals for major riders.

Team Sky, BMC, Movistar, Rabobank, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Garmin-Barracuda all bring captains intent on making a strong run for the overall

Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte, both off hot results at the Volta ao Algarve, lead Team Sky. Chris Froome will not be at the start line in order to continue his recovery from the chest infection he contracted at the Volta ao Algarve. Xabier Zandio will be taking his place.

Defending champion Tony Martin leads an equally stacked Omega Pharma-Quick Step that also includes Sylvain Chavanel and Levi Leipheimer, who is making his European debut after winning the Tour de San Luís in Argentina in January.

Alejandro Valverde will be looking to continue his strong comeback that’s already included a WorldTour stage-win at the Tour Down Under in January and the overall at the Ruta del Sol in Spain in February. Former winner Luis Leon Sanchez leads Rabobank while Andreas Kloden, a winner back in 2000, headlines RadioShack that has both of the Schleck brothers on the preliminary start list.

Andrew Talansky and Christophe Le Mevel headlines Garmin-Barracuda’s GC hopes while Tejay van Garderen has already pointed to Paris-Nice as one of his major goals for the first half of the 2012 season.

Others, such as Jani Brajkovic (Astana), Denis Menchov (Katusha), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), will only add more depth to a Tour de France-like start list for the season’s first major stage-race.

Balanced course with two TTs

This year’s “Race to the Sun” (March 4-11) offers a balanced, challenging route that includes two time trials – on the first day and the last with a climbing TT up Col d’Eze – and a hilly route that includes 25 rated climbs. All that is packed into eight days of intense racing that takes the peloton from the outskirts of Paris down to the luxurious confines of France’s Cote d’Azur.

Sunday’s opening time trial of 9.4km will be no walk in the park and should see significant time differences, with a third-category climb right off the gun.

Paris-Nice seems to have a taken a page from the Tour de France (ASO owns and organizes both races) and leaves few opportunities for the pure sprinters. Monday’s second stage into Orleans is the only stage that truly fits the mass-gallop profile.

Stage 3 finishes with a 5km, third-category kicker at Le Lac de Vassiviere while stage 4 rumbles along the edges of the Massif Central with five rated climbs and the Bourran “wall” in the closing kilometers.

The GC will go a long way toward being sorted out with the Cat. 1 summit to Mende on the menu. The finale is ideal for Ardennes-esque riders such as Valverde and Sánchez, who can kick a sprint after the short, but steep climb. The next two stages provide chances for the stage-hunters and will prove a daunting challenge for teams looking to defend the yellow jersey. The routes cover several difficult climbs, but most are far from the finish lines, offering attacking riders a chance to hunt for a stage-win against the GC hopes of the lead pack.

Sunday’s finale in Nice offers an interesting twist with a 9.6km climbing time trial up the Cat. 1 Col d’Eze. The race finale normally tackled Col d’Eze twice before finishing along the Promenade des Anglais along the beachfront in Nice.

Sprinters and Frenchies

Behind the GC riders, a crack field of sprinters will be racing Paris-Nice despite the relative dearth of opportunities. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda), J.J. Haedo (Saxo Bank), Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil), Thor Hushovd (BMC), Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale), Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha), J.J. Rojas (Movistar) and Marcel Kittel (Project 1T4i) are among the sprinters lining up. Many will be using the demanding parcours to prepare for Milan-San Remo later this month.

The French always rise to the occasion at Paris-Nice, with riders such as Chavanel, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r) and Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) always hunting for stage-wins as well as the prestigious honor of being the top French rider in the GC.

Weather is always a factor in Paris-Nice, with snow and cold weather sometimes blanketing the roads, especially in the high-altitude zones of the Massif Central.

Forecasters are calling for showers and cool temperatures in the low 50s F, something tolerable for spring racing. Sunny skies with cold temperatures into the high 30s F are on top for the climbing stage to Mende while sunny skies and spring-like temperatures in the mid-60s should prevail along the Cote d’Azur. Hopefully the race will live up to its name.