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Tony Martin and Peter Sagan among favorites for Paris-Nice

Tony Martin and Peter Sagan will be among the in-form riders looking to capitalize on the relative lack of Spanish talent when Paris-Nice kicks off on Sunday.

PARIS, France (AFP) ─ Germany’s Tony Martin and Peter Sagan of Slovakia will be among the in-form riders looking to capitalize on the relative lack of Spanish talent when the first major stage race of the season, Paris-Nice, kicks off on Sunday.

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Spanish riders have stamped their authority on the “Race to the Sun,” as the event is traditionally known, in recent years with Alberto Contador claiming two wins (2007, 2010) and Luis Leon Sanchez winning in 2009.

This year, however, there is little chance of a repeat of last year’s all-Spanish podium when Alejandro Valverde, who is currently banned, finished between Contador and Sanchez.

With Contador competing at the Tour of Murcia and organizers including the longest time trial since 1968 — a 27km effort next Friday — the 1,307km epic from Houdan to the west of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice is wide open.

On paper, German all-rounder Martin, a time trial specialist who can climb, has all the attributes to claim his second stage race victory of the year only a week after triumphing in the Tour of the Algarve.

Martin is likely to be backed by a strong HTC-Highroad outfit, which has another option for overall victory in promising young American Tejay Van Garderen.

“It seems logical for us to enter riders on Paris-Nice who are both good climbers and skilled at time-trials,” HTC coach Valerio Piva told the race’s official website www.letour.com.

“The announcement of the route supported our decision to enter Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen, two general-standings riders who are extremely good on long time trials. We’re not sad about the lack of a prologue, because that gives our sprinter Matt Goss an extra opportunity to win a stage and wear the leader’s jersey at the start of the race.”

On paper, there’s something for every style of rider on the race as it winds its way down through Beauce and then through Beaujolais country before hitting the rugged and hilly Ardeche and finally on to the Cote d’Azur.

Like Martin, Sagan, a climber who is also at home in medium-sized time trials, has demonstrated his early season form by winning three of the five stages and overall victory at the Tour of Sardinia last week.

Australian Michael Rogers will saddle up alongside Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins for the first big test of 2011 as he switches his victory focus to one-week stage races instead of a top-10 place in the Tour de France.

The course also is well-suited to Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, the winner of two stages on last year’s Tour, and the Quick Step rider is likely to be up for the challenge only weeks away from the one-day-classics season.

Luxembourger Fränk Schleck, the brother of two-time Tour runner-up Andy, is in one of his first big outings for his new team Leopard-Trek, although the time trial is expected to handicap his victory chances.

Stages

Stage 1 – Sunday, March 6: Houdan, 154.5km
Stage 2 – Monday, March 7: Montfort l’Amaury-Amilly, 198.5km
Stage 3 – Tuesday, March 8: 8 Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire – Nuits-Saint-Georges, 202.50 km
Stage 4 – Wednesday, March 9: Crêches-sur-Saône – Belleville, 191.00 km
Stage 5 – Thursday, March 10: Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise – Vernoux-en-Vivarais, 194.00 km
Stage 6 – Friday, March 11: Rognes – Aix-en-Provence ITT, 27.00 km
Stage 7 – Saturday, March 12: Brignoles – Biot – Sophia Antipolis, 215.50 km
Stage 8 – Sunday, March 13: Nice-Nice, 124km