With a new-look route, can Paris-Nice attract the big names from Tirreno-Adriatico?

The big names have found racing kilometers in Italy instead of France in recent years, but can a new route for Paris-Nice bring them back?

MILAN (VN) — Tour de France owner ASO last week unveiled a bold route that avoids time trials and mountain finishes for the 72nd running of Paris-Nice. But will the new-look “Race to the Sun” draw the return of stars it has lost to Tirreno-Adriatico in recent years?

ASO called its mid-March weeklong event “a race for the daring.” It said in its route announcement on Feb. 4, “Rouleurs and climbers will have a crack at victory alongside the fighters and punchers of the pack.”

Not one time trial or high-mountain finish marks the route. Instead, aggressive and unpredictable stages rule at the “Race to the Sun.”

Will it be enough to lure the best riders to France? Until recently, Paris-Nice was the early-season race of reference for riders targeting the Tour de France and even the classics. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) won two editions. Floyd Landis won the same year he wore yellow on the Champs Élysées at the Tour. Sean Kelly won six consecutively in the 1980s. However, more of the sport’s stars have migrated to the central Italian race, which has become more mountainous in recent years.

The events run nearly simultaneously, with Paris-Nice March 9-16 and Tirreno-Adriatico three days later, March 12-18. On the line? Preparation for Milano-Sanremo, the season’s first major classic, and a week of high-level racing in the build-up to the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.

The routes of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico

Paris-Nice includes eight stages, one more than Tirreno-Adriatico. The extra day helps take the French race’s kilometer count higher, to 1447.0 against Tirreno’s 1019.1.

Sky has won the last two editions of Paris-Nice, with Richie Porte in 2013 and Bradley Wiggins in 2012, in part thanks to the time trials. One kicked off the race and one, from Nice to the climb of Col d’Èze, ended it.

In Italy, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has won two consecutive editions. In 2012, the Sicilian made his gains at the high-elevation Prati di Tivo ski station. Last year, he had to overhaul Sky’s Chris Froome with brute force on the wet and technical stage to Porto Sant’Elpidio. A short, flat time trial only served to refine the classification in each edition.

Tirreno-Adriatico will skip Prati di Tivo this year, but keep with the same formula. A team time trial at the start and a 9.2km individual ITT sandwich three sprint stages, a tricky mid-mountain stage, and a high-mountain finish at Selva Rotonda, at more than 5,000 feet elevation.

In contrast, most of Paris-Nice’s stages stay below 3,200 feet. The race’s highest pass, the Col de l’Êcre, comes midway through stage 7. Whereas its Italian cousin has one tricky mid-mountain day, Paris-Nice has three. Given those stages, Paris-Nice could tune the riders perfectly for Milano-Sanremo the following Sunday.

Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli said during the off-season that Nibali needed more French or international racing ahead of his Tour de France bid in 2014. He also explained that Paris-Nice gives his Italian star more recovery days, six versus four, ahead of Sanremo.

The stars will shine in Italy

Nibali will start Paris-Nice next month and, looking at tentative schedules, will race with Porte, world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), former Sanremo winner Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), and former world champion Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Froome and Wiggins will race Tirreno-Adriatico along with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma), last year’s Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), former Sanremo winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), and Marcel Kittel (Giant).

Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Chris Horner (Lampre) will skip the mid-March stage races. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma) has yet to confirm his plans, but will skip Sanremo after RCS Sport, organizer of the classic and Tirreno-Adriatico, added a new climb to the finale.

Despite changing its format for 2014, and the presence of hopeful Tour contender Nibali, it appears as though Paris-Nice will once again lose out in the sweeps to attract the most star power in March. But it will be a few months before we see which race served as the better launch pad for the classics and grand tours.