Preview: Paris-Nice 2016

Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas took first and second for Sky on stage four of the 2015 Paris-Nice. The Tasmanian went on to seal the overall by winning the final stage time trial up the Col d’Èze. Photo via pelotonmagazine.com

Paris-Nice has been a staple of the cycling season since as far back as 1933, and though it’s formally nicknamed the ‘Race to the Sun’, as the riders head from the French capital to the splendid southern coast, it’s also known more informally as the first test for would-be Tour de France winners. Bradley Wiggins won this eight-day tour on route towards TDF 2012 glory, and Alberto Contador did the same in 2007 and 2010 (though, of course, he’s since had the ’10 win taken off him due to a positive test for clenbuterol). Contador’s fate was the same as Floyd Landis, who won Paris-Nice and then the Tour de France in 2006, but had his own title stripped away only four days later. But the prestige and tradition of Paris-Nice still remains strong.

Paris-Nice has had to compete with an Italian upstart since 1966, the coast-to-coast Tirreno-Adriatico race. The T-A is often a hillier affair, and so steals away much of the climbing talent; this year it’s caught the eye of Roman Kreuziger, Domenico Pozzovivo, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde, and Tejay Van Garderen. But there’s plenty of talent to go around, and Paris-Nice will feature Contador, as well as Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte, Tom Dumoulin, and Tony Gallopin. There’s also a whole constellation of secondary climbing and general classification talents on hand, so the long week won’t be short of exciting racing.

The route has also been subject to change and variations in recent years, and this year is no different. On stage 1, for instance, we can look forward to four gravel sections towards the end of the course. This is sure to make the general classification riders a little nervous, especially if the wind picks up — Strade Bianche has shown the damage that can be done by a powerful breakaway on loose road surfaces and into headwinds. But if all goes to plan, we’ll be seeing only marginal time gaps up until stage 5, when the mountains will separate wheat from chaff.

The usual final-stage time trial up the Col d’Èze has been replaced with a more regular stage in and around Nice. Last year Richie Porte took the G.C. on the climbs, but it’ll be harder going on this final sawtooth profile, which saves the Col d’Ȉze till the very end. It’s quite possible that the final podium selection will be made up this last hard climb.

Prologue

At only 6.1km, it’s a short prologue which opens the race on Sunday. Riders with power and time trial skills will be targeting the win here, but, due to the short length, we won’t be seeing time gaps of much significance. Still, a day in yellow is a day in yellow, plus there are bonus seconds on the line throughout the week, so expect strong performances from the usual suspects: Tom Dumoulin, Niki Terpstra, Geraint Thomas, Lars Boom, Jos Van Emden, Matthias Brändle, and, on a good day, Sylvain Chavanel. The pre-race favourite was Rohan Dennis, but sadly the BMC powerhouse is out with sinusitis. There is also a little rain forecast, which might mean an advantage to the earlier riders to start.

Stage 1

This must surely be a day for the sprinters. Stage 1 utilises the flat and exposed roads of the end of year classic Paris-Tours, but the race organisers are having a giggle by throwing in those gravel sections, each between 600m and 1400m. Alexander KristoffMarcel Kittel, and Andre Greipel are the standout favourites for this, and the drag race between all three will be exhilarating. However, there’s a chance for classics men like Sep Vanmarcke and Philippe Gilbert to steal the show, if they work hard for a late attack on the peloton. However, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh will most likely be too busy guarding Kittel to go on the attack. The Sky classics trio of Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and Geraint Thomas might also be worth keeping an eye on here. Finally, we’re expecting Alexis Gougeard to go on the attack on the gravel, after his sensational ride in the Omloop.

Stage 2

The longest course of the week, and again on exposed roads. If the wind picks up, expect panicked echelon riding and looks of concern on the faces of the G.C. riders. The finish in Commentry (we can already imagine Carlton Kirby’s ‘Commentry/commentary’ jokes) isn’t the flattest on earth, so it’s not a guaranteed sprint finish here. Riders like Tim Wellens and Julien Simon might want to try their luck on the run in, and the bumpy finish might just let a rider of their type take the win. If the attacks don’t stick, then take your pick from Kristoff, Kittel, and Greipel once more.

Stage 3

The first summit finish this year is at Mont Brouilly. It’s only 3.5km in length but maxes out at a ferocious 14%, so specialist climbers and puncheurs will be targeting this stage. The race visited Brouilly in 2014 and it was then Tom-Jelte Slagter and Geraint Thomas who went over the top, with the Dutchman winning the stage. This time the race will take the climb, descend back down again, and then swoop back around for the summit finish. We like Philippe GilbertMichael AlbasiniDiego Rosa, and Tony Gallopin for this sort of short, sharp climb. Expect fireworks from the G.C. men, too; in case they end up fighting for the stage, look to Geraint ThomasAlberto Contador, and Tom Dumoulin.

Stage 4

Oh, look at that pancake flat finish in Romans-Sur-Isère. For novelty’s sake, let’s try a different permutation on the order: Greipel! Kittel! Kristoff! The parcours don’t really suit a breakaway, and it’s hard to see the second-tier sprinters (like Nacer Bouhanni) doing too much to upset the big three here.

Stage 5

This is where the race will really get interesting. The riders will go up part of Mont Ventoux (a taster of the full climb which will be used in the Tour de France), going from Bédoin towards Chalet Reynard. This means they take on the harsh inclines of the woods, but miss out on the lunar landscape above the tree-line. This is a sage decision, given that the summit will be pretty frosty at this time of year. The profile, and the likelihood of strong winds, make this a good opportunity for a strong and cooperative break. In that case, look to the likes of Tommy Voeckler and Pierre Rolland. Rolland always likes to accrue the polka-dot points on stages like this, and Voeckler’s no stranger to going long. However, if the group does come back together this will likely come down to sprint, perhaps from a 50-plus strong peloton. In that case, it’ll be down to whomever has survived to sprint it out. Greipel has managed to stay in contact on days like this in that past, but our money’s on Alexander Kristoff.

Stage 6

The last two stages of the tour both start in Nice this year, and stage 6 includes many of the local training roads used by the professionals that live in the area and in nearby Monaco, so this should be very familiar territory for much of the peloton. This is also likely where the G.C. will be decided, as it’s the toughest summit finish in the race. Expect a controlled race throughout the day, with teams like Tinkoff driving a strong pace in order to catch the breakaway on the final climb. And then look to Alberto ContadorTom DomoulinGeraint Thomas, and Romain Bardetto light up the last climb. We’ll also find out what’s happened to Richie Porte‘s form on this difficult ascent, and whether or not he’s bounced back after a miserable Tour of Oman. We’ve also got our eyes on Ion IzagirreRui CostaSimon Yates, Louis Meintjes, and Serge Pauwels, and if any of those riders are significantly down on G.C., they may well be allowed to sneak off for a stage win.

Stage 7

Stage 7 is the final loop around Nice and features the famous Col d’Èze as the final climb, before a no-holds-barred descent to the line. Romain Bardet is an awesome descender, so he should be the one to watch here. There’s also a good chance that a rider like Philippe Gilbert, or, better still, Tony Gallopin might be able to open up a gap on the descent, but that means cresting amongst the leaders on the last climb. Much will depend on the outcome of the previous stage in terms of how this one is raced; if it’s tight at the top of the G.C., expect the top climbers to go hell for leather over the Col d’Èze. If not, then a more relaxed approach to the tough climbs might allow a break to go up the road right up to the line. If so, we’d bet on Pierre Rolland being amongst them to clean up in the KOM contest. It’s the sort of stage Dimension Data have thrown their forces at in the past, so why not a last roll of the dice from the hardworking Daniel Teklehaimanot or Nathan Haas?

All profile and route pictures courtesy of Procyclingstats.

Picks:

Andy is picking Geraint Thomas. He can climb, he can descend, he’s got a handy turn of pace for the finish, and he’s capable of going long. He’s also a good outside bet for the prologue win. There’s no doubt ‘G’ will be riding to win this, and, given Sky’s previous training programmes for the Tour de France, his team will surely be expecting him to show good form this week.

Chris likes Tom Dumoulin. He’ll have a hard job keeping up with Contador on the longer climbs, but who won’t? Plus he’s shown great consistency in races of this length, has a powerful all-rounder build that suits this mixed course, and he’s got some pretty solid lieutenants around him (Laurens Tem Dam, Simon Geschke, et al). He’ll be ruing the decision to take out the final time trial this year, but he might just pick up a healthy handful of bonus seconds in the prologue, and that might be enough to keep him at the head of the field.

James is picking Romain Bardet. He looked good in Oman, and the minimal time trial kilometres in this year’s race, coupled with Bardet’s potential for explosive attacks on the climbs, marks this Paris-Nice as a possible first big tour win for the Frenchman. He’s sure to be amongst the lead bunch on the longer climbs, and, with Nibali in Italy all week, his descending skills are unrivalled. Given the long downhill to the line on the last stage, Bardet might be first in Nice in every sense.

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