It would be daft to think Paris-Nice is called a 'mini-Tour de France' because it is owned and run by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the same body who run Le Tour and a slew of other top cycling races with an iron fist. No, primarily and quite simply, it is because in most of its previous editions, the parcours, in part or whole, has resembled a truncated version of that 3,500-odd kilometre loop tackled in July.
So, when the route of this year's Paris-Nice was unveiled Ã¢â‚¬â€œ sans prologue, sans time trial, sans major mountains, sans hilltop finish Ã¢â‚¬â€œ those riders seeking to test themselves on a Grand Tour styled parcours would have been sorely disappointed. 2013 Tour champ Chris Froome is unquestionably the top dog on Team Sky, so naturally, at the time, he got first dibs on where he wanted to go; Richie Porte, therefore, settled for Paris-Nice, where he is the champion of yesteryear. Yes, the Tirreno-Adriatico percorso was better for the Tasmanian, but it was more important for Porte to handle the sensation and responsibility of team leadership, because experienced as he is, it is arguably something he needs more than anything.
Froome, as we now know, has an inflamed sacroiliac joint in the lower back, a recurring problem he will likely have to manage for the rest of his career. (I can't help but think it's got something to with his AOTS Ã¢â‚¬â€œ all-over-the-shop Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and yes, an acronym I just made up Ã¢â‚¬â€œ technique par non-excellence that Garmin-Sharp DS Charly Wegelius denounced last year to be "a crime against cycling"; even his bestie Richie called him "a bit of a thrasher" at a Team Sky press conference in Corsica, prior to the start of the 2013 Tour. Or maybe this is how we should all ride/race our pushies when the road tilts upwards?)
Granted, for organisers ASO, it's not a good look for the defending champ to pull the pin twenty-four hours prior to the start of a major event Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but then again, what did they expect? Christian Prudhomme, the race director, labelled Porte's withdrawal from Paris-Nice and insertion into Tirreno, which begins Wednesday, as "cavalier" Ã¢â‚¬â€œ yet the same could be said of constructing a route that favours a spring classics-style puncheur over one more GC-orientedÃ¢â‚¬¦
Don't the classics guys have enough spoils to squabble over the next six weeks?
This observation from a Cyclingnews reader over the weekend, I thought, was spot on: "If Prudhomme wants the top Grand Tour riders to give priority to his race, he should design a race that appeals to them. If he wants to do a classics-style race, great, but that's always going to mean risking (attracting) the big riders." ASO has billed this year's Paris-Nice as a "race for the daring" Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but we all know that 'daring' (translation: risk-taking) doth not win Grand Tours; Team Sky's modus operandi is all about measured, and often pre-meditated efforts, and as such, with the right rider, it has won them the past two Tours de France.
"We wanted to move away from stereotypes and we're going to continue on this path," said an offended yet defiant Prudhomme. "Bearing in mind it's the riders who decide, we'll keep proposing more open courses."
Open to whom, exactly, monsieur Prudhomme?
Nine different winners have emanated from the past ten editions of Paris-Nice, from GC riders like Alberto Contador and Porte, to Ardennes classics types like Davide Rebellin, all-rounders like Luis LeÃƒ³n SÃƒ¡nchez, and time trial specialists like Tony Martin. The stage winners have been equally diverse. Seven-time winner Sean Kelly's prolificacy was some thirty years ago (1981-88); as for three-time champ Laurent Jalabert (1995-97), well, that happened in the naughty nineties.
Prudhomme said himself the riders make the race Ã¢â‚¬â€œ so is there really the need to upturn a formula that's been successful with eight 'en-ligne' stages in a row? This year's Paris-Nice parcours reminds me how the Tour Down Under used to be before race director Mike Turtur, after thirteen editions of same old, same old, finally threw in a mountain top finish Ã¢â‚¬â€œ how much better was it?
As for Porte, the start of the 97th Giro d'Italia in Belfast is just two months away. August last, shortly after it was announced he would target the race, I asked the man who 'discovered' Richie, Avanti team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston, whether he thought his former protÃƒ©gÃƒ© was ready to take on the Giro as team leader. "I most definitely do. (But) I think the Giro's a bloody hard tour. There's no doubt the Tour has the attention of everyone but you probably get looked after a lot better by your team; everyone can forecast what's going to happen at the Tour, to some degree.
"They don't seem to throw caution to the wind, at that time of year. That's going to be a difficult thing for Richie. But he's been there; he's already done the Giro, he's done the Tour many timesÃ¢â‚¬¦ I think he's ready. He's got the maturity to do it. But, have one bad day in a Grand Tour and your Tour's overÃ¢â‚¬¦ I think he's got all the tools to do it Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it's more about having a good enough team behind him. And I think that may be a challenge, because obviously (Team Sky's) focus will be massively on the Tour. He needs luck, and you need to be on your game; you have to ride position Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but he's proven he can do that."
What about that which happened on the road to BagnÃƒ¨res-de-Bigorre on the ninth stage of last year's Tour, where Garmin and Movistar turned the tables on Sky, resulting in Porte plummeting from second to thirty-third on GC and losing eighteen minutes?
"I think that Richie had (a high) workload all the way through the Tour, to some degree. And at the beginning of the (ninth) stage a lot of the audience couldn't see (what happened), because we joined (the coverage) quite late. Richie was already having to ride (on the front) quite a bitÃ¢â‚¬¦ and as soon as you have a bad moment, if someone picks up on that and thinks you're a threat, they're going to put you to the sword."
Christie-Johnston threw it back to me: "Put him in the other situation."
If Porte was the leader, it wouldn't have been a problem, he said Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the team would have coalesced and nursed him back on. "I think it was more the fact that the other GC riders that were there had not done a tap until that point, whereas RichieÃ¢â‚¬¦ yes, he had a bad day, but the thing that I recognise is that a lot of those Grand Tour guys have bad days. It's when you have a bad day, is it at a day that others take advantage of, or is it a day where you just slip under the radar, people don't realise, and nothing happens? Richie had a bad day when (Sky) was too dominant the day before.
"I actually found it strange why they decided to take yellow the day before because it was a long way to go. With two guys so dominant the day before, (it was a case of) 'Let's just knock one of them off.' And (Porte) had a bad day on that same day that he was challenged. I know from Froome, WigginsÃ¢â‚¬¦ they've all had bad days, but some days, it's just not noticed because others haven't been able to recognise they're close to popping Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and then you get away with it."
For the 29-year-old, anything less than a podium in Trieste on June 1 will be considered a failure. He therefore needs to place himself in situations that simulate the multiple scenarios he'll face throughout May Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and one of those scenarios will be going head-to-head with Cadel Evans, which he will get a chance to do Wednesday at Tirreno.
"It's nice to stoke up the rivalry again (with Evans)," Porte told AAP.
"Paris-Nice this year, it's not a great race for me. But Tirreno, when Chris (Froome) pulled out, it was a logical decision to send me to the Italian race. It's much easier to go to a race that suits you, rather than racing and hoping for a podium or even a top-five Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it really was that situation."
Judging from the preliminary line-up Robert Gesink, Michal Kwiatkowski, Daniel Martin, Nicolas Roche, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Michele Scarponi, Andrew Talansky, Rigoberto Uran and Jurgen Van Den Broeck feel much the same way.