After a February break, WorldTour racing is upon us again. The 73rd running of Paris-Nice brings time trials and high mountains back into play after a year without them. The 2014 edition of the race favored punchy opportunists with a talent for nabbing bonus seconds, but this year’s event will put the more prototypical General Classification contenders in the best position to challenge for the overall victory. While Tirreno-Adriatico may have drawn the “big four” Grand Tour contenders, there are still plenty of elite talents headed to France this weekend to contest the Race to the Sun. As the European WorldTour opener, and the season-opener for many big names, and with another shakeup of the parcours, Paris-Nice offers plenty of storylines to make for an interesting race (storylines also investigated in further detail in the Recon Ride’s Paris-Nice pre-race show, which you should check out if you haven’t already).
Paris-Nice opens with a short, flat prologue of 6.7 kilometers. It’s hardly long enough to open big gaps on GC but this should be a close race so the riders hoping to fight for the overall victory here will be on their toes. A flat Stage 1 should go to the pure sprinters, and the fast men will likely get another chance on the similarly flat Stage 2. A very slightly inclined finish on Stage 3 could at least give the lighter sprinters an advantage to mix things up, but it should again be large group that reaches the line together in Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule.
The mountains arrive quite suddenly on Stage 4. Early climbs in the profile could prove a nice launching pad, and late climbs and winding roads a nice buffer, for a strong breakaway, but whether stage honors are on the line or not, the GC battle will be fierce.
The Cat. 1 closing climb of the Croix de Chauboret doesn’t compare to some of the more grueling climbs these riders will face in the Grand Tours later this season but at the end of a day of constant climb, and this early in the season, it will very likely catch a number of contenders out. It’s a mostly gradual ascent to the summit finish but a high tempo from one of the powerhouse teams is sure to leave big names off the back before the line.
A few bumps along the road to Rasteau and an uphill drag to the line will make Stage 5 an interesting battleground on which sprinters, aggressors, and punchier climbers will all have a chance. The more explosive GC riders could be on the lookout for bonus seconds.
Bonus seconds could also be hotly contested on Stage 6, which is up and down all day long with a total of three Category 2 climbs and three Category 1 climbs. After the last (Cat. 1) climb it’s a long downhill run to the line. If the climbs don’t give the uphill purists room to get separation, a small group could descend the Côte de Peille together, which will guarantee an exciting final few minutes.
Paris-Nice ends with a 9.6-kilometer time trial up the Col d’Éze, also the final battleground for both the 2012 and 2013 editions of the race. The 4.7% average gradient may not look like much but past editions has proven that this is a chrono for the elite climbers.
Under 10 kilometers though it may be, the Col d’Éze climb is going to open up gaps in the General Classification fight, guaranteeing that Paris-Nice will come down to the very last day.
All told, there’s something for everyone in Paris-Nice. Those battling for overall supremacy will need to battle through a variety of different challenges, against gravity and against the clock, to emerge victorious. Meanwhile, those hoping to come away from Europe first WorldTour race of the year with stage wins will face stiff competition with the long list of strong sprinters.
The General Classification Contenders
More so than the 2014 edition, the 2015 Paris-Nice route is especially favorable to the big engine riders who can fend for themselves in the time trials and long vertical drags. Coming off of a strong performance in the Tour Down Under (where his inability to consolidate bonus seconds left him just off the top step of the podium) Richie Porte is clearly in terrific shape for the year, and Paris-Nice offers him a a golden opportunity to put his National Championship-winning ITT skills on display. His great climbing legs put him in the lead a few stages prior in the 2013 Paris-Nice, and he clinched the overall win on that year’s run up the Col d’Éze, where no one was faster. Two years since then, with that challenging finale returning to the route, Porte’s GC bid will be difficult to overcome in 2015, especially backed by the powerhouse Sky powerhouse lineup that includes Geraint Thomas and Nicolas Roche as dangerous support riders or potential alternatives.
BMC’s Tejay van Garderen is another rider capable of battling with the very best in both the climbs and the time trial. Fresh from the Tour of Oman, where he was a close runner-up, van Garderen looks lean and on-form. In fact, he has a history of performing very well early in the season. The steady gradient of the Stage 4 finishing climb suits him well, both time trials should be opportunities for him to advance on the GC leaderboard, and he even has a bit more explosiveness than many realize should he find himself in a small group with bonus seconds on the line at any point. With Cadel Evans in retirement, now is the time for van Garderen to prove that he can be the sole GC leader of this team, and his combination of skills puts him in an excellent spot to do so here. Van Garderen also has an excellent team around him, with Rohan Dennis, climbing better than ever, as a very strong second.
Rui Costa was 2nd in last year’s race (and in fact racked up a pair of 2nd-place stage finishes along the way) but he has the skill set to thrive on the updated parcours as well, combining great climbing legs with time trialing chops that can’t be overlooked (though they often are) and the explosiveness and aggressiveness to win battles for bonus seconds. With Rafael Valls, fresh off a Tour of Oman victory, here as well, Lampre should be able to hold their own.
Multi-talented Michal Kwiatkowski will look to attack the GC leaderboard early even from the first day of racing, with prologues a particularly forte of his, and he should be in the mix for bonus seconds here and there throughout the race. At times, he has flashed brilliance even on the tough mountain climbs, but he has had a tendency to suffer a bad day in the mountains here and there in his career. If he can avoid that sort of off-day in Paris-Nice and stay close to the best climbers, he will have a great shot at the overall win.
Dutch rising star Wilco Kelderman had a very impressive 2014 and he will look to continue to develop as LottoNL’s GC star this season. Interestingly, he did not quite perform to (high) expectations in the chronos last year, but a 2nd-place ITT finish in Andalucia last month has him looking sharp and ready to race against the clock this year. Ever-improving climbing skills and a fierce finishing kick for the bonus seconds make him a strong competitor.
Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo will likely do a lot of work for Alberto Contador this season, but the 25-year-old Polish climber, 4th overall in Oman last month, is in great shape at the moment and won’t pass up an opportunity to mix it up in a WorldTour race. He is an excellent uphill time trialist who should perform well on the final stage. Fabio Aru of Astana also knows about being the second of two elite GC riders on one team, and with clouds of uncertainty hanging over Astana, now would be a good time for him to make a statement as the featured GC rider while Vincenzo Nibali is leading the squad in Tirreno-Adriatico. At his best, Aru would rival Porte as a pre-race favorite but his completely unknown form makes him more of a question mark. Teammate Jakob Fuglsang will be an excellent second, 5th here last year on a parcours that did not suit him particularly well. 7th in Oman in February, Fuglsang is the in-form rider. With Lieuwe Westra and Luis Leon Sanchez (two riders with results in Paris-Nice in the past) here as well, Astana will almost certainly be on the move at every opportunity.
Andrew Talansky is a question mark for form at the moment, not having raced at all in 2015, but Paris-Nice was something of a coming out party for him in 2013, and with a similar course he has the skillset to thrive again. Jean-Christophe Péraud was on the podium that year as well, but his form is dubious right now. Teammate Romain Bardet looks like the better option for AG2R. Mathias Frank is a massive talent in the one-week events for IAM Cycling. Warren Barguil isn’t much for the time trials, but with the uphill nature of Stage 7, that may not hurt him too much. He should fight for a Top 10. Katusha’s Tiago Machado, Simon Spilak, and Sergey Chernetskiy should be in the mix on the climbs and with their combined firepower, they have the ability to attack the GC leaderboard from several angles.
Simon Yates of Orica-GreenEdge, Movistar’s trio of Rubén Fernández, Beñat Intxausti, and Ion Izaguirre, and Trek’s Bob Jungels (who has a great shot at winning the prologue) will also hope to get involved in the GC conversation. VeloHuman’s Under-the-radar rider for Paris-Nice is Eduardo Sepúlveda of Bretagne-Séché Environnement. 4th overall in San Luis in January and the winner of the recent Classic Sud Ardèche, Sepúlveda is the complete GC package and sporting great form right now. For his team, motivation to put on a show at the WorldTour level will be high, and the 23-year-old Argentinian has the skillset to take up the charge.
The list of top sprinting talents making the start in Paris-Nice seems to go on forever. Though Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel won’t set out from Maurepas, the startlist does include André Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni, Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Démare, Giacomo Nizzolo, and John Degenkolb as the riders likeliest to contend for the sprint finishes. Michael Matthews, Heinrich Haussler, and Ben Swift will hope to get involved on the slightly bumpier days.
Punchy Arthur Vichot, Michael Albasini, Tony Gallopin, Philippe Gilbert, and Tom-Jelte Slagter will look to get into the mix when the road is too hard for the sprinting powerhouses, as may be the case in the finale of the hard-to-predict Stage 5.
The startlist is also overflowing with elite time trailing specialists. In addition to those mentioned as GC contenders, Bradley Wiggins, Tony Martin, Tom Dumoulin, and Thomas De Gendt are among the many in attendance who excel against the clock.
VeloHuman Top 10 GC Favorites
Winner: Tejay van Garderen
Podium: Richie Porte, Rui Costa
Other Top Contenders: Michal Kwiatkowski, Wilco Kelderman, Rafal Majka, Andrew Talansky, Fabio Aru, Beñat Intxausti, Romain Bardet
Be sure to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for more Paris-Nice commentary and daily stage predictions, and check back soon for plenty of Tirreno-Adriatico pre-race analysis.
Photo by Mike Slone.