Preview: The race to the sun, Paris-Nice

cycling, road, paris-nice, FRA, richie porte, sylvain chavanel, van garderen, BMC, team sky, ASO, preview
Who will stand on the podium this year at Paris-Nice. (Getty Images)
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No prologue. No time trial. No mountaintop finish. Paris-Nice returns to a simpler formula in 2014 leaving the door open for a far more open flavour of racing.

The 72nd edition of Paris–Nice is one for the "enterprising". As the organisers describe, it's a route that will allow "rouleurs and climbers to have a crack at victory alongside the fighters and puncheurs of the pack". A lottery, that will certainly make it hard for last year's winner Richie Porte to successfully defend his title.

Last year...

Porte won last year’s edition on the summit finish of La Montagne de Lure, pouncing late in the stage after young American Andrew Talansky had exhausted himself to snag the stage and race lead. An emphatic ride on the Stage 7 time trial up the Col d’Eze then sealed the overall title, the first by an Australian in the race’s history. Talansky was second, and best young rider, while the ever-consistent Jean Christophe Peraud rounded out the podium.

The course

If the 2013 edition of Paris-Nice was one of the hardest in recent years, with a handful of selective days interspersed among tough transitional stages along the road south, this year offers an uncharacteristically gentle start.

The opening three days, where the peloton works its way from Mantes-La-Jolie through Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours are formulaic, but the difficulty will not come in the parcours. Nervousness is the order of the day at this time of the year, and with the inevitability of the last few tempestuous puffs of winter wind always threatening to wreck havoc, keeping the rubber side down will be the key to an otherwise innocuous start.

Stage 4, 201.5km from Nevers to Belleville however will introduce the terrain of opportunists as Paris-Nice glances the Alpine foothills. Just over three kilometres long, the Côte du Mont Brouilly which comes just 14km from the finish, may be short, but what it loses in sustained climbing it throws back two-fold with a wretched series of 15, then 20 per cent ramps inside its final kilometre. A chance to shake the GC up or to catch a rival napping. The first of three critical days as the race approaches its natural finale in Nice.

After a long transfer south Stage 5 offers little respite, but its Stage 6 where the GC must surely be decided. The 220km the field will need to cover between Saint-Saturnin Les-Avignon and Fayence is no walk in the park this time of year, and the succession of climbs in the race’s final 60km will do nothing but further soften the legs of a peloton still warming to the 2014 season. The first of five Cat. 1 climbs in this year’s race rears its ugly head, the Col de Bourigaille, before the only uphill (not summit) finish in Fayence. There isn’t likely to be huge time gaps, but this stage is more likely to decide the overall than either of the following two.

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Neither Stage 7, nor Stage 8 have the design of naturally selective days in the saddle, but they will prove hard to control for whoever has the unenviable task of defending the race lead. The final stage around Nice includes the synonymous Col d’Eze, and final chance to upend the race’s classement before the finish.

Who to look for...

GC
With the number one on his back, Richie Porte (Team Sky), who’s already shown he’s carrying good form with strong rides in Andalucia and before that at the Santos Tour Down Under has to be in the hunt. But as mentioned before, the absence of a truly selective finish may prove his undoing. The same can be said for Tejay van Garderen (BMC) who was second best only to Chris Froome in Oman on the brutal Green Mountain, but no doubt would’ve preferred a time trial to make his mark.

Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali is an interesting one. The Italian has been quiet so far this year, riding a largely anonymous Tour of Oman, and yet still doing enough to take 12th overall. While Nibali’s form is coming, it’s his acumen on the descents, and in the tough weather that could be his biggest asset. All three are obvious candidates for success, but this year, particularly with the nature of the course the likes of Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), Rui Costa (Lampre-ISD) or IAM’s Sylvain Chavanel are all dark horses. Gerrans hasn’t raced since January, but what a January it was, while Chavanel has an affinity with this race that is impossible to ignore.

Sprinters
The race won’t be just about the men racing for yellow. With three solid flat days the fast-men will get there time in the sun. John Degenkolb was classy at the recent Tour of Mediterranean, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was twitchy in Oman, while six-time stage winner Tom Boonen (OPQS) can’t be overlooked, nor Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr).

The race runs 9-16 March and SBS will have daily highlights online. SBS ONE will also broadcast an extended package on the race the following weekend.

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