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Prime opportunities await sprinters, GC riders at Paris-Nice

The Paris-Nice route this year will offer something for everyone in the peloton

Beginning Sunday, twin plot lines will course south from Maurepas, a suburb outside Paris, toward Nice and the Mediterranean Sea. One is doused in yellow, built around two time trials and a tough mountaintop finish. Another is green, a matchup of the sprinters, fighting for the four stage wins on offer. The two combined will tell the story of the first real stage race of the year.

Paris-Nice, or the “Race to the Sun” as it has been optimistically dubbed, races across France from March 8-15. A Tour de France in miniature, it often provides insight into climbs and stages Tour organizers Amaury Sport Organisation will use for the grand boucle in coming years. The race compresses sprints, mountaintop finishes, and time trials into a single week.

It is a race of opportunity this year, and it sees the return of a more traditional route after the experimentation of 2014. The sport’s top GC men — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Chris Froome (Sky), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), as well as last year’s champion Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) — have opted for its Italian equivalent, Tirreno-Adriatico. That leaves the French race to riders on the rise, those who are expected to be nipping at the favorites’ heels come July, and to super domestiques now given a shot at personal victory.

Sky’s Richie Porte, who falls into the second camp, stands out as the Paris-Nice favorite, as he won the Col d’Eze time trial in 2013 and does well on medium-length climbs like the one found at the finish of stage 4. He comes backed by Tour champion Bradley Wiggins as well as Geraint Thomas, Bernard Eisel, and new signing Nicolas Roche.

The sprinters will have a chance to weave their narrative through the early stages. With the exception of the flat, 6.7-kilometer prologue outside Paris, the early stages are tuned for them. Stages 1, 2, 3, and 5 all finish flat and fast. With John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Bryan Conquard (Europcar) all present, each should prove to be a tough battle.

The race could be lost on the Croix de Chaubouret, a 10km climb at 6.7 percent, found at the end of 204km on the fourth stage, and won on Col d’Eze, host of the final, 9.6km uphill time trial.

The climb, in other words, will serve to separate the wheat from the chaff. A race so early in the season will inevitably see a few good climbers without top race form, and they will suffer on the Chaubouret’s steep slopes.

Should the winner on stage 4 take a time gap over 30 seconds, it could prove decisive for the overall. But anything less and the race will come down to that final time trial. In 2013, the last time the Col d’Eze TT was featured in Paris-Nice, Porte won by 23 seconds over Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin).

A few things to watch for as the week progresses:

American faceoff

They insist their rivalry is friendly, but as the top two American stage racers — Talansky and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) — continue to progress, there will be that inevitable moment when the two clash at the very top. Will that happen at Paris-Nice? Probably not, as it’s simply too early in the season to put much weight into any difference between them. But don’t believe for a minute that one is not keeping a close eye on the other.

Talansky has done well at the race before, finishing second overall in 2013 behind Porte. He enters in good form, noting on Twitter Tuesday that his coach, Jesse Moore, had once again “timed things just right.” He brings a strong team as well, backed by Alex Howes, stage winner Tom Jelte-Slagter, Ben King, Ted King, and rouleur Jack Bauer.

Van Garderen was fourth in 2013, 59 seconds behind Talansky. He’ll have hour-record holder Rohan Dennis at his side, along with Philippe Gilbert and climbing talent Peter Velits.

The French connection

Two of the three French GC stars from last year’s Tour de France will toe the start line in Maruepas. Jean-Christophe (known in the peloton as JC) Peraud and Romain Bardet, both from Ag2r, will always seek to perform well in front of home crowds. The eyes of the French are on Bardet in particular, who is labeled (along with FDJ’s Thibault Pinot) as the next Great French Hope.

The course suits Peraud, who was third here in 2013, more so than Bardet. But both will want to ride with the best up Chaubouret.

“I’ll be happy just to follow wheels initially, then I’ll see what I’m capable of. I’m hoping that my condition will improve stage by stage, and that I’ll be able to do something decent towards the end of the week,” Peraud said.

Wiggins as best supporting actor

Wiggins will ride in one of his final races for Sky in support of teammate Porte, a strong favorite for the overall title. It is team firepower like this that makes Porte such a heavy favorite this year.

Cast off the rainbow curse

There’s no such thing as a “rainbow curse.” The stats prove that. However, Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) did have a sub-par year in the rainbow stripes in 2014, with an overall win at the Tour de Suisse and a second at Paris-Nice the only notable highlights. He was focused last year on the Tour de France, when in fact he seems far more adept at tackling those races closer to the length of Paris-Nice. Perhaps he’ll return to utilizing his strengths this year.

VeloNews darkhorse pick: Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo)

This darkhorse is not so dark. Majka proved his mettle in the Tour last year and has backed that up with a win at the Tour of Poland and a fourth overall at the USA Pro Challenge in August. He will be Tinkoff’s protected rider at Paris-Nice and the course suits him well, particularly the steep stage 4 climb.