Preview: Paris-Nice 2017

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Tim Wellens won a thrilling final stage at last year’s race. Outsprinting Contador and Porte, who failed to gain enough time to over the eventual GC winner, Geraint Thomas. Photo via wielerflits.nl

The season has truly begun for the classics men of the peloton, and now it’s time for the Grand Tour GC favourites to kick-start their season. Paris-Nice is known as ‘The Race To The Sun’, and that is very much true as the majority of the stages will be set against the backdrop of a cold and damp early European spring, which proved too much in 2016 and saw Stage 3 abandoned after 93km due to heavy snow before the race even reached the approach to the summit finish on Mont Brouilly, which returns for 2017 but as the climax of a 14.5km ITT.

The first of three back to back flat and sprinter-friendly stages kicks off the race, after two years of prologue curtain raisers. The sprinters should take the glory on stage 1 and 2 but, with a category 2 lump in the profile with 25km to go, Stage 3 could be one for the break or a plucky late attack. After this, the GC will be the focus as the riders tackle the uphill time trial to Mont Brouilly on Stage 4. Stage 5 is the longest of the race, coming in at just under 200km, and will be the final chance for the fast men to snag a stage win. Even though this features some categorised climbs, they appear too early in order to effect the inevitable outcome of a bunch sprint.

After this the riders will transfer down to the Côte d’Azur for the final three stages, that will take most of the riders along familiar training roads and mountain climbs. Stage 6 is uphill from the gun and features six categorised climbs in total – a punishing day! Stage 7, the Queen Stage, sees the riders start in Nice for the first time and finish atop the Col de la Couillole, prior to that the will take on the Col de Saint-Martin, where the GC battle could well be sewn up. However, as 2016 showed, everything could change on the final stage. The frantic and rollercoaster-like final stage around Nice is repeated again in 2017, all be it shorter (115km) and thus hopefully making the racing even more frantic! Three Côtes and two Cols are tackled before a ‘sprint’ to the line in Nice. This was one of the best days of racing in 2016, so let’s hope we get more of the same in 2017!

The start list is a GC star-studded affair, which is good to see as Paris-Nice has suffered in recent years with having to compete with Tirreno-Adriatico. However, the change to the parcours in 2016, and continuation of this in 2017 has very much brought this race back on an equal footing with its Italian rival.

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There are three clear favourites for this race, headed up by the in-form GC rider of the moment, Richie Porte. A former winner here in 2013 and 2015, he dominated the Tour Down Under and as such comes here as the main pick for the race. Nicolas Roche will be his main support here and Amaël Moinard, who also raced at the Tour Down Under. Few would bet aginst the Australian getting his hat-trick.

There is no doubt that Alberto Contador can still entertain and race with panache, but the jury is still out as to if he can still compete with the top riders and comes out on top at the big week long and three-week stage races. He was visibly upset on the podium when he finished second to Geraint Thomas last year, so he the fire to go one step further this will be strong. Haimar Zubeldia will be his main support, whilst Jarlison Pantano will have stage wins on his mind. You right Contador at your peril, so we won’t, but, it will take a big effort for him to win here.

France’s bright young Tour de France hope, Romain Bardet was in the mix at Oman, we’re not counting Abu Dhabi as an indicator of anyone’s form – due to the poor effort and tactics employed by many of the top riders on the climb up to Jabel Hafeet. Bardet has improved every year since 2014, where he took his first Tour de France stage win. He still needs things to go his in order to beat Porte, but he’s closing in on a big stage race win and it won’t be long until it comes. Mathias Frank and Pierre Latour will be the other main men and will possibly also have stage ambitions of their own.

Then we have the riders who will be pushing for podium spots:

Steven Kruijswijk suffered heartbreak at last year’s Giro and then failed to mount a challenge at the Vuelta after abandoning on stage 6. The Giro again will be his focus for 2017, and this is a race where hasn’t stood out in previous years, so it will interesting to see where his form is at at the stage of the season.

Stage winner and 4th on GC from last year, Ilnur Zakarin, will be looking to take a big win here and spring a surpise. He similar bad luck to Kruijswijk at last year’s Giro, crashing out on the same stage when the Dutchman lost the Maglia Rosa. It wouldn’t be a shock is the Russian ended up on the podium or even won the race.

Daniel Martin and Julian Alaphilippe will be dual leaders of Quick Step and will likely use that to their advantage to try and shack up the racing when the road goes uphill. For us, Martin feels the stronger to compete with the main favourite, but Alaphilippe is the more aggressive and could surprise.

Recent Columbian national champion, Sergio Henao, will lead Sky’s defence of the race that Geraint Thomas won last year. As usual, the have strength in depth with the whole team focused on supporting the Colombian. He sacrificed is chances last year to help Thomas hang on to yellow jersey on the final stage, now it’s his turn to show that he can win it himself.

Ion Izagirre may switch to new team Bahrain Merida and will want to make a mark early in the season after crashing out at the Ruta Del Sol. He took a memorable win in the wet at the Tour de France last year and will relish coming out of the shadows of Quintana and Valverde at Movistar.

Simon Yates was 7th on GC here in 2016, but that was when he had planned on peaking for the Tour de France before a drug tests cock up by his team forced him out of it. This year he is aiming for the Giro, so his form may not me at the same level as last year. If so, then a stage could well be on the cards for him.

Tony Gallopin was third at the recent Volta Algarve, but this presents a different challenge. He won a stage here in 2015 and will want to show that he is still a week long stage race contender.

Then we have riders that will likely be fighting for a top-10 GC spot second, and stage wins first.

Joe Dombrowski, Davide Formolo and Pierre Rolland of Cannondale-Drapac, who come here with no clear team leader. Warren Barguil had a low key 2016, after recovering from the big training crash last January, and will want to show the kind of form he showed when he finished 6th on GC at the 2014 Vuelta. Movistar will have had to revised their expectations for the race after Valverde had to withdrew due to illness. Winner Anacona and Jesus Herrada will be their GC hopes, but stage wins are more likely to be the focus. The same can be said for Serge Pauwels and Natnael Berhane, stage wins and the KOM jersey could be more realistic targets

Image result for 2016 paris nice sprint

Sprinters and classics men have tended to favour Tirreno-Adriatico in the run up to Milan-San Remo, but there is still plenty of talent on offer at Paris-Nice, which offers lots of opportunities on the flatter stages.

Alexander Kristoff, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel will be the men to beat when it comes to an out-and-out bunch sprint. All have looked in good form and have picked up wins early in the season.

John Degenkolb also looks like he is back to the form he showed before the training crash last January pretty much torpedoed his season, he’ll be desperate to get a big stage win aginst top opposition. He teammate Edward Theuns is showing great form of his own and will be waiting in the wings on the lumpier finishes.

Nacer Bouhanni and Micheal Matthews almost come to blows as the sprinter for the win on Stage 2 last year, Bouhanni was was first over the line, but Mattews was awarded the win. So this will be an interesting sub-plot when the two of them line up this year. Both are yet to show any real form this year, this will, in fact, be Matthew’s first race of the season. His teammate Nikias Arndt took a great win in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and will be pushing to get a chance to make a big show here.

Arnaud Demaré took at stage win here last year on his way to a controversial and surprising win at Milan-San Remo. He was sixth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last weekend will target the trickier, uphill sprint finishes. Frances other hope for home stage win is Bryan Coquard. He was millimetres away from a Tour de France stage win, only to be denied by Kittel’s tyre, another younger rider who is so close to taking a big win.

It’s only a matter of time before Dylan Groenewegen beats the best sprinters in the world and the race cold be the setting for it. He was second to Kittel twice at Dubai, the poor weather I the early stages could swing the sprints in his favour.

Other riders that will be in the mix for the flatter stages are Niccolo BonifazioBen Swift, Magnus Cort Nielsen, Daniel McLay, Sam Bennett and Kristian Sbaragli

We’ll add our pick for each stage below our previews of each day’s profile below:

Stage 1

For the last two years, Paris-Nice has begun with a prologue, not this year. The riders will take on two loops of Bois D’arcy. There are KOM points on offer, as they tackle the category 3 climb of Côte de Senlisse twice, at just over 1km in length and with an average of 5.5% it’s little more than a leg stretcher. Other than that the route is pretty uneventful until they take on the final few km. 2km from the finishes the piloting will encounter any incline of 6% and we shall surely see someone make a break for it. The last 500m are a false flat, so it could be a really tense ‘will he, won’t he’ finale.

With the weather set to be typically spring-like today, with cold temperatures and rain forecast, this makes us favour the fast men of the classics for this. Kristoff, Demare and Degenkolb will all fancy the slight uphill sprint to the line. But Groenewegen could be in line to take his first big win. A rider like Luke Rowe or Sonny Colbrelli could also make a break for it on that 6% incline.

Our pick: Dylan Groenewegen (Result: 77nd, Winner: Arnoud Demare)

Stage 2

If Stage 1 offers a whiff to the breakaway, Stage 2 snuffs out any such thought after the KOM chasers have crested the Côte des Granges after 9kms. From then its flat and an expect bunch sprint will fight it out for the win.

On paper this is the easiest sprint stage of the race, however, the wind played its part in shaping the result of stage 1, and it’s set to do so again on stage 2. The rain will also be heavier, turning this into a Belgium One Day Classic. All the teams will be on alert for attacks when the wind whips up. BMC, Trek Segafredo and Orica Scott will use all their firepower to try and take advantage of the elements, that they fell foul of in stage 1, and try to gain time back for their GC leaders. Katusha, FDJ, Quickstep and Lotto Soudal will hope for a repeat of Stage 1! For us, this means a showdown between Degenkolb and Kristoff, and we’d edge in favour of the German.

Our pick: John Degenkolb (Result: 2nd, Winner: Sonny Colbrelli)

Stage 3

Another sprint-friendly stage on paper for Stage 3. However at 162km, with 26km still remaining, comes the category 2 Côte de Charrecey. This 2.1km, averaging at 6.7%, could spoil the sprinter’s party and be the scene of a race winning break. It will be hard to keep a significant gap following the decent and on the flat roads leading to the finish to keep the chasing peloton at bay. Another thrilling finale is in prospect.

After two wet and cold days, the peloton is in for another soaking. However the wind will be easier, so we shouldn’t see the same level of chaos yesterday early echelons had on the race. The big deciding point is the Côte de Charrecey, too steep for the likes of Kittel to get over, so we will loose some of the sprinters. Degenkolb, Kristoff and Greipel should all make it over, but all of them and their teams put in a shift yesterday. Bryan Coquard got dropped by the lead echelon early on in the stage and came in over 20 mins down on the winner, so will be the freshest. He is light enough to whip over the Cat 2 climb and will favour the technical finish.

Our pick: Bryan Coquard (Result: 13th, Winner: Sam Bennet)

Stage 4

We mentioned that last year’s attempted to climb Mount Brouilly was abandoned due to snow, so this year ASO aren’t taking any chances and the riders have a mere 14.5km to negotiate on Stage 4. However this is an uphill time trial, so not as easy as the stage length suggests. The climb to Mount Brouilly takes up the final 3km and averages at 7.7%, however, the last km ramps up to an eye-watering 25%.The GC standing will be well and truly shaken up after this, and some significant time gaps could have been established.

The GC has already be shaken up dramatically before the riders even swing a leg over a TT bike. The one certainty is that we will have a new race leader after today with either Alaphilippe, Gallopin, Henao or D Martin the likely yellow jersey wearer. Before the race begin Porte was our nailed on favourite for this stage, but he has taken a beating of the last few days and now lies over 15 minutes down on GC, Hard to see him get up to fight it out today, his revised targets lie later on this week. Contador won the uphill prologue at last year’s Dauphine and is still in the GC hunt, so expect a big ride from him today. Kruijswick was 2nd at the Giro summit TT, but his GC race is all but over, however, he could be back in the hunt for a podium finish after today. The two riders we think we be fighting it out for the stgae win are Zakarin and Ion Izagirre. Th Russian, who was 7th at the Giro TT last year, was one a few riders who turned up for the Jabel Hafeet stage at the Adu Dhabi tour and looks ready to grab some time back on GC. However the most constant time trailer of late is Izagirr (discounting Tony Martin, as the climb won’t suit his style), he looks to have recovered from his crash at Rute del Sol and will be aiming for the win, plus bonus seconds to leapfrog back up the GC standings.

Our pick: Ion Izagirre (Result: 9th, Winner: Julian Alaphilippe)

Stage 5

The longest stage of the race and the final chance for the sprinters. But yet again it’s not that simple. The length, undulating profile and a category 2 spike with 40km to go, could all spell out a win for the break. They will need a good minute or two gap after the Côte de Saint-Uze (2.7km, 6.5%), as the roads a far flatter than the first two-thirds of the stage. It should be a bunch sprint, but you never know!

The are quite a few big names without a stage win. Kittel, Greipel, Degenkolb and Kristoff won’t want to go home empty handed, so we feel that the winner will come from this quartet. The position is key going into the last 3km, as there are three roundabouts in quick succession and there is tricky right hander at 500m to go, where the road then rises to the finish, suiting the stronger of the quick men. Demare, Bennet, Coquard and Groenewegen will also have to pull off something special to disrupt the lead name’s and their superior sprint train, but this race has shown that surprise can happen.

Our Pick: Alexander Kristoff (Result: 17th, Winner: Andre Greipel)

Stage 6

No less than six climbs are n the menu for stage 6, and the first to tackled from km zero. The category 1, Col de l’Espigoulier, is 8.9 km and averages at 5.6%. There is a significant amount of rest bite following this intense start, with the next climb coming nearly 100km after the summit. But following this lull, there will be five climbs in just over 80km. The first two (the Côte de Tuilières, 2.2km averaging at 7.8%, and the Côte de Mont Méauix, 1.7km averaging at 4.3%) are a warm up for the final trip of climbs. The riders will the take on the category 1 Col de Bourigaille gaat, which is 5.5km and average at 6.1%. This is where we expect to see the first flurry of attacks as the GC contenders attempted to whittle down the remaining peloton. The riders will then descend down into the finish town of Fayence and go over the finish line for the first time and complete a 25kms circuit around Fayence. They will then go back up the Col de Bourigaille, but from the another side which is  8.2 km and averages 5.9%, descend back down, only to tackle the same climb a third time. However, this accent ends after 1.3km and the road up the finish line averages at 9.8%. A punishing day in the saddle!

As this is the first of three mountain stages, we may see the GC contenders happy to let the break fight it out for the stage win. Expect to the french trio who are currently leading the KOM: Hardy, Perichon and Latour in the morning break. Out of those three Latour has the best chance of staying away until the finish. BMC could also have some fun with Porte, Roche and De Marchi, but we think they may favour tomorrow’s stage finish. Other breakaway contenders would be Albasini, De Gent, Formolo and young Sam Ooman, who has looked in good shape on the stage 4 ITT. However, if the GC men decide they want the stage for themselves its hard to look past Alaphilppe at the moment, but Contador, Zakarin, Gallopin and Heno won’t want to loose any more time to him. However this plays out, its set to be a fantastic spectacle!

Our Picks: GC – Sergio Heno, Breakaway: Sam Oomen or Pierre Latour 

Result: (Heno – 2nd, Oomen – 15th, Latour – 85th.Winner: Simon Yates

 

Stage 7

Stage 7 will see the race climb higher than it has ever done before and has the most about elevation in the race. This is where we shall see the current yellow jersey wearer look to cement their lead before the stress of the final stage. Again, they will climb from the start with the Côte de Gattières (Catagory 2, 4.5 km and averaging at 4.8%)  and the Col de Vence is (Catagory 1, 9.7 km and averaging at 6.6%) and expect to the KOM jersey contenders in the mix with early morning break. The riders will the roll on 80kms before the run-up to the Col Saint-Martin begins. The climb is a slow starter that gets progressively steeper, with the last 7.5km averaging at 7.2%. Attacks are to be expected towards the top of this climb, as the riders will then negotiate the descent that ends at the foot of the final climb to the summit finish atop the Col de la Couillole. This is the highest elevation that the race has encountered, which sees the finish line at 1,678 metres above sea level. The climb itself is a beast at 15.7km and an average gradient of  7.1%. Arguably whoever crosses the line first will have won the race.

We didn’t get a breakaway win yesterday, the bonus sections on the line and the fight to create gaps to gain back time where the focus of the GC contenders and them same should be true today. The break will probably be allowed a bit more elastic today, we’ll be looking at Latour, Oomen, De Gent, Dombroski and Porte to be eyeing this one up from a long way out. Alaphillpie was put under pressure for the first time yesterday by Henao, who grabbed back nearly 30″. Today is a long, hard slog and the Frenchman will be subject to attack after attack from Contador, Gallopin, G Izagirre, Zakarin and Yates. Luckily he has D Martin at his services, as was showed yesterday when he sucked on Irishman’san’s wheel up to the finish. We’d expect to loose some more time today but still have enough to hang onto yellow going into the final stage.

Our Picks: GC – Ilnur Zakarin, Breakaway: Richie Porte or Pierre Latour 

Result: (Zakarin – 8th, Porte – 1st, Latour – 7th)

 

Stage 8

If we get a repeat of last year’s final stage, then we’ll all be happy. This short and punchy lap around Nice should encourage aggressive racing fro either stage hunters in the breakaway or if the GC time gaps are still tight, the overall contenders could still have unfinished business. This year the final stage is shorter, coming in at 115km, as the race organisers have removed on the climb early in in the stage. The race again avoids its traditional final sprint finish on the Promenade des Anglais in respect of the victims of last year’s terrorist attacks. After a flat start, the riders climb the Côte de Levens (6.2km, averaging at 5.5%). After a dip down through the village of Levens, the riders tackle the category 2 Côte de Chateauneuf (5.4km and averaging at 4.4%), following the descent the final category 2 climbs appears in the shape of the Col de Calaïson (6.3km averaging at 4.4%). The final two climbs are category 1, the Côte de Peille and the traditional closing salvo of the race the Col d’Eze. By the time the race reaches these two climbs we will either have a break that is comfortably away and fighting it out for the win or the GC battle will still be being hotly contested at the head of the race – do not miss this one!

There are 31 seconds separating Henao, D Martin and Contador, so the GC is still all to play for. Contador ripped it up early last year, so expect him and Pantano to do the same again. Sky will be wary of this, and won’t be caught out as easily, Henao got Thomas out of jail last year, so will try to stick like glue to Contador’s wheel. The Quickstep duo of Alaphillipe and D Martin will also be up for distributing things early on. Alaphillipe will be riding for D Martin, he’ll still be eyeing a podium finish for himself, but will be spent after yesterday efforts. The Izagirre brothers, although riding on different teams, could form an alliance on the road and cement a top 10 place (the first brothers to do this at the race since Louison and Jean Bobet in 1957). Zakarin is the only other rider with a slim GC chance, he looked off the pace yesterday, so may not be able to keep up with the frantic pace. Three non-GC contenders to watch out for: Ulissi will have been targeting this stage, he’s got a great sprint and can launch an attack that can drop most of the riders here. Simon Yates launched a brilliant attack on stage 6, which stuck to give him the win, he’s another aggressive rider who has a decent kick in the finish. Finally, Sepulveda who, like Ulissi, will have been targeting this stage. He’s been quite all race but expect him to in the thick of the early attacks.

Our Picks: GC – Dan Martin, Breakaway: Diego Ulissi or Eduardo Sepulveda

 

Our GC Picks:

Andy – Richie Porte

Chris – Romain Bardet

James – Ilnur Zakarin

 

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