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Paris-Nice starts under a cloud

Paris-Nice used to be cycling’s sparkling season kickoff, a chance for the sport to shake off the winter doldrums and click fully into gear for the year’s first major stage race. The once shining “Race to the Sun” has since been transformed into the sport’s major battleground in the ugly, drawn-out power struggle between cycling’s governing body and the sport’s preeminent race organizer, Amaury Sport Organisation. At the dawn of Sunday’s prologue start of the 66th edition, the UCI and ASO are showing no signs of a last-minute cease-fire.

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The teams vote to start

By Andrew Hood

Cadel Evans attacking in stage 6 of Paris-Nice last year.

Cadel Evans attacking in stage 6 of Paris-Nice last year.

Photo: Graham Watson

Paris-Nice used to be cycling’s sparkling season kickoff, a chance for the sport to shake off the winter doldrums and click fully into gear for the year’s first major stage race.

The once shining “Race to the Sun” has since been transformed into the sport’s major battleground in the ugly, drawn-out power struggle between cycling’s governing body and the sport’s preeminent race organizer, Amaury Sport Organisation.

At the dawn of Sunday’s prologue start of the 66th edition, the UCI and ASO are showing no signs of a last-minute cease-fire.

Riders are facing six-month bans and 10,000 Swiss franc fines, the UCI is promising legal action to protect its interests, ASO is stubbornly sticking to its guns and the sport is teetering on an irreparable split if there’s not a final-hour compromise.

What a way to start the season.

In its strongest move of defiance so far in a war that erupted with the introduction of the ProTour in 2005, ASO is intending to run Paris-Nice under the auspices of the French cycling federation and apply French anti-doping laws.

The UCI sees the move as nothing short of civil war and is mustering all its forces to force ASO back into the fold.

“We have to warn those who love cycling: accepting the demands of the ASO means transforming professional cycling into a league controlled by the dominant organizer and not an organization representing the collective interest,” wrote UCI president Pat McQuaid in an open letter.

The latest skirmish dates back to last fall, when the UCI removed most of Europe’s biggest races from its contentious ProTour series, but insisted that ASO reserve a place in the Tour de France for the remaining 18 teams in the ProTour league.

ASO says it is only trying to protect Paris-Nice’s prominence on the racing calendar and assure its right to invite which teams it rules deserves a place in its races, namely the Tour de France.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme didn’t take the bait when asked Saturday about the looming storm.

“What counts for us is organizing races — that’s our job,” Prudhomme told AFP. “Above all a race like Paris-Nice, an historic race that will be 75 years old on Thursday. I only want to say one thing — once the race starts, all I want to talk about are the riders, their exploits, their victories and defeats.”

The UCI’s main weapon is to coerce riders and teams, which are finding themselves caught between an escalating war that could create a permanent schism between the UCI and the major race organizers.

Rumors are already flying that a separate racing league beyond the control of the UCI is in the works.

The teams

Despite the threats and calls for a boycott, teams voted Friday to start Paris-Nice.

“Our intention is to race, but now we must choose between the firing squad and the guillotine,” Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere told reporters. “If we say yes to the race, then we’re sanctioned. If we say yes to the UCI, then we don’t race the Tour. We should make them realize that we will not race in any race until this is resolved, but I can’t count on any solidarity among the teams.”

Several high-profile riders, among them Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, are skipping the firestorm for fear of missing out on the world track championships or the Olympic Games later this season.

Barring last-minute surprises, riders expected to start who could vie for the overall title include Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Oscar Pereiro and Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), David Millar (Slipstream-Chipotle), Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Frank and Andy Schleck (CSC) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre).

Last year’s champion Alberto Contador won’t be back to defend his title after his Astana team was unilaterally excluded by ASO from all races it promotes, which includes Paris-Nice, the Tour and such one-day classics as Paris-Nice and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Slipstream-Chipotle is among three wild-card teams to receive bids to give the U.S. team a spot in its most important European race so far in its breakout season. The peloton will include all 17 ProTour teams, with the exclusion of Astana, with 20 teams of eight riders.

The route

Riders who do show up won’t have it easy in what’s a hard eight-day route that sees the inclusion of Mont Ventoux for the first time in 20 years.

Perhaps looking to avoid weather problems that have plagued the past few editions of Paris-Nice, the route starts further south and largely avoids the cooler and often snow-bound heights of the Massif Central.

Instead of starting in the suburbs of Paris, organizers have moved the opening prologue 125km south of the City of Lights to the Loire Valley with a 4.6km-opening prologue in Amilly.

Two sprint-friendly stages push south with stops in Nevers and Belleville before dipping into the Massif Central with the decisive, five-climb 165km third stage to Saint-Etienne. The hilly route tackles the race-breaking Cat. 1 Col de la Croix de Chaubouret before an 18.5km descent into the finish that typically decides who will be fighting for the overall victory.

The route’s highlight will be the 176km fourth stage up the “unexplored” northern face of Mont Ventoux to the ski resort at Mont Serein. The route tackles Ventoux from the “easier” north side of the géant du provence and ends short of the observatory summit used in the Tour.

The last time Ventoux was featured in Paris-Nice was in 1987 when Sean Kelly won in a summit finish at the Chalet Reynard on the traditional southern approach up the climb.

The hilly, 172.5km fifth stage to Sisteron is ideally suited for breakaway artists while the seven-climb, 207km sixth stage into Cannes typically sees further settling of the overall classification.

Nothing’s decided until the rollercoaster 122.5km finale over the cols towering above the glittering seaside city of Nice in what’s one of cycling’s most-glamorous finales.

The final day’s route is largely uncharged with the inclusion of the Cat. 1 Col de la Porte early in the stage with Cat. 1 summits at La Turbie and Col d’Eze before a lightning-fast descent into Nice.

The facts

66th Paris-Nice

March 9-16, France

Prologue, March 9: Amilly-Amilly, 4.6km

Stage 1, March 10: Amilly to Nevers, 184.5km

Stage 2, March 11: Nevers to Belleville, 201km

Stage 3, March 12: Fleurie to Saint-Etienne, 164.5km

Stage 4, March 13: Montélimar to Mont Ventoux (Mont Serein ski station), 176km

Stage 5, March 14: Althen-des-Paluds to Sisteron, 172.5km

Stage 6, March 15: Sisteron to Cannes, 203.5km

Stage 7, March 16: Nice-Nice, 122.5km

Total = 1,230km

Teams

France: Ag2r-La Mondiale, Agritubel*, Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis,
Crédit Agricole, Fracaise des Jeux

Germany: Gerolsteiner, Milram

USA: High Road, Slipstream-Chipotle*

Spain: Caisse d’Epargne, Euskaltel, Saunier Duval
Belgium: Quick Step, Silence-Lotto
Italy: Lampre, Liquigas
Denmark: CSC
Netherlands: Rabobank, Skil-Shimano*

* = continental team

Latest winners:

2007: Alberto Contador (Spa)
2006: Floyd Landis (USA)
2005: Bobby Julich (USA)
2004: Jörg Jaksche (Ger)
2003: Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)
2002: Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)
2001: Dario Frigo (Ita)
2000: Andreas Klöden (Ger)
1999: Michael Boogerd (Ned)
1998: Frank Vandenbroucke (Bel)