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The favourite to stand on the top step of the podium in Nice must be world champion Rui Costa. The Portuguese has all the skills to excel in this kind of race and his showing in the recent Volta ao Algarve  indicates that he is already...


07.03.2014 @ 20:22 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Spring has finally arrived and nothing is more indicative of the brighter times to come than the kick off of the first major stage race, Paris-Nice. The symbolism is evident when the riders literally travel from the cold, windy, and wintry conditions in Northern France to the bright sunshine at the French Cote d'Azur while the terrain changes from a flat sprinters paradise to a hilly, undulating affair. Once the place to be for the greatest stage race riders, however, the 2014 edition is a novel affair that suits the punchy classics riders much better than the grand tour specialists and we could see a completely different type of riders come to the fore than we have seen in recent years.


Most professional bike riders already have plenty of racing miles in their legs, making good use of the warm and sunny conditions in places like Australia, Argentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur to clock up the kilometres. While an early win is always appreciated and a welcome boost of confidence, however, it has until now been all about warm-up and preparation for the bigger races to come.


That all changed last weekend when the professional cycling calendar enters its next phase with the traditional Belgian opening weekend. While cycling fans all over the world have appreciated the globalized cycling and the many high-level early season events, there is still a feeling that the season hasn't started for real until the best classics riders have tested themselves on the Belgian cobbles for the first time.


The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicked off the race calendar of historic races on European soil. From now on, the races are no longer mere training in a laid-back atmosphere, now it is time to clock up the results. For the classics riders, things got serious last Saturday but for the stage race riders, the first real test has traditionally come with the double-header of big, historic stage races: Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. Even though Paris-Nice is not the Tour de France and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not the Tour of Flanders, the serious racing now begins in earnest.


Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico both play a strange, dual role on the calendar. On one hand, they are the first big objectives for the greatest stage racers who hope to land their first big wins in one of the most prestigious races on the calendar. At the same time, they are a crucial part of the preparation for the classics riders who benefit immensely from one week of WorldTour racing in tough conditions and versatile terrain. It may be difficult to decide whether to head to France or Italy but one of the races forms an indispensable part of every successful classics schedule - just ask Team Sky whose classics riders made the ill-fated experiment of skipping the historic stage races in 2013.


It is no wonder that Paris-Nice is a key event on the European calendar. With its inaugural edition taking place in 1933, it has a deep history and its position on the calendar is both symbolic and well-chosen. Originally put on as a training race right after the track season, the race disappeared during World War II and an ill-fated attempt to revive it in 1946 was quickly shut down.


The race was back on the calendar in 1951, with the Paris-Nice name being restored in 1954, and it was during the 50s that the race gained its status, growing from a preparation event to a big race in its own right. The fantastic 1966 battle between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor divided France and from then, the race was definitively part of cycling's most prestigious events. Right from the beginning, it has been an international affair and many of the big riders have added the event to their palmares, with Eddy Merckx winning it three times in a row from 1969 to 1971, Anquetil taking five wins, and Miguel Indurain two. The dominant figure has, however, been Sean Kelly who won the race an impressive 7 times in a row from 1982 to 1988 until Indurain broke the streak.


What makes the race so special is its symbolic nature. Known as the Race to the Sun, nothing signals the arrival of spring better than the French race which starts in Northern France where the riders are often bundled up as they try to battle the cold and windy conditions. This part of the race has traditionally suited the sprinters and the classics riders, with the crosswinds often playing a crucial role on at least one stage.


As the riders travel south and get closer to Nice, the weather improves and the riders typically end the race in sunny conditions at the Cote d'Azur. At the same time, the terrain changes and it is now time for the climbers to come to the fore to decide the overall standings in the prestigious race.


That dual nature means that the race has a bit for everyone. The race has often kicked off with a prologue and has often ended with the now famous time trial up the Col d'Eze on the outskirts of Nice, meaning that there has also been something for the time trialists to target. Due to its early dates, the race never reaches the high mountains and always completely skips the Alps and so it has rarely been a race for the real climbing specialists. Instead, it is won by a versatile rider who masters everything, and it is clearly reflected by the winners list.


Traditionally, the race has been the place to be for the great stage race riders who have been attracted by the versatility of the course that has made it some kind of a mini Tour de France. In recent years, however, this has slightly changed . For several years, the amount of time trialing was limited to an opening prologue, with the 2011 edition and the recent return to the Col d'Eze time trial being the major exceptions, and several editions have not had any major summit finishes.


This year, however, organizers ASO - who have been in charge of the race 2002 - have designed a novel route that completely turns the tables. With no time trials and no major summit finishes, the course has been described as being made up of 8 classics and this has caused a major reshuffle in the line-up. Having learnt about the new course, most big stage race riders have changed their mind and decided to forgo the French race in favour of Tirreno-Adriatico while the classics specialists have been attracted by the new layout. This year the race could very well come down to a battle for bonus seconds between the punchy guys more than a traditional stage race for specialists.


That development is an interesting one as the Tirreno-Adriatico has gone in the opposite direction. Traditionally, the two WorldTour races have been involved in a fierce battle for the best line-ups and for several years they seemed to divide the spoils. As the Italian race has often consisted of a mixture of flat and punchy stages and has often been won by classics riders, the one-day specialists headed to Italy while the stage race riders travelled to France. With Tirreno organizers RCS having changed the formula of their race to include more time trialing and bigger mountains, however, it is now the Italian race that seems to be the mini grand tour while Paris-Nice is much more suited to the punchier guys.


Both races have also battled for the honour of being the best preparation for Milan-Sanremo. Opinions have been divided as the French race has allowed a bit more rest before the Italian classic while the Italian one has often had longer stages and better weather conditions. In recent years, the Sanremo winner has often been doing the Tirreno - Simon Gerrans and Matthew Goss are the major exceptions - but with the new changes, that may change in the future.


Last year the race was one for the stage race specialists as it both included an opening prologue, a summit finish on the Montagne de Lure, and a final time trial up Col d'Eze and it signaled the coming of age for Richie Porte as a stage race rider. The Australian defended himself well in the opening stages before distancing everybody convincingly in the headwind up the Montagne de Lure. He delivered the final knockout punch on Col d'Eze when he took another dominant win in the time trial to take his first and only WorldTour stage race win. This year Porte is back to defend his title but the two riders that joined him on the podium, Andrew Talansky and Jean-Christophe Peraud, are some of the riders who have changed their mind after seeing the course and will do the Tirreno instead of trying to improve on last year's performance in the Race to the Sun.


The course

As said, organizers ASO have put together a very novel course that completely changes the layout of the race. While it has left many stage race riders - including defending champion Richie Porte - hugely disappointed, it has been a source of joy for many classics specialists who will have a number of options for stage wins and even a rare chance to go for a GC result in a big stage race.


The race  keeps its traditional format in the sense that it heads from the north of France near Paris to the traditional finish in Nice. Some years the race has finished with the time trial up Col d'Eze but this year the race will again finish in the beautiful surroundings on the famous Promenade d'Anglais along the coast.


What makes the race different is the design of the individual stages. There will be no major summit finishes and no time trials at all, and it is no wonder that the organizers have described the race as one consisting of 8 classics. The stages either seem to be straightforward sprint stages with the potential of some crosswinds action or lumpy races suited to Ardennes specialists who can both climb and sprint.


Stage 1:

Many historic races which include geographical places in their names, no longer start in the city that their name indicates. That is also true for Paris-Nice which doesn't start in the centre of Paris but usually takes off in a city not too far from the French capital.


This will again be the case for the 2014 edition which again starts in the Yvelines department. The city of Mantes-la-Jolie has been given the honour of kicking off one of the biggest bike races and it will do so with a short 162.5km stage that both starts and ends in the city.


The race is mostly a circuit race, with the riders starting on the northeastern outskirts of the city and doing a small loop in the northern area before turning around and heading back to the city centre. The early part is lumpy but mostly flat.


In the city centre, the riders will cross the river and turn left onto the 33.5km finishing circuit and they will almost do a full lap of the section that will be the scene of the rest of the action. It is almost completely flat but includes the category 3 climb Cote de Vert (1.5km, 4.4%). It comes early on and from its top, 22.5km remain before the riders are back at the finish line.


Having done almost a full lap to get acquainted with the circuit, the riders will cross the line for the first time to contest the first intermediate sprint after 63km of racing. The final part of the race consists of three full laps of the circuit and so the Cote de Vert will be climbed four times in total. There will be KOM points on offer at the first and third passages while the intermediate sprints come at the third and third passages of the finish line.


The final part of the circuit is slightly technical but almost completely flat. The riders will do a sharp left-hand turn just before the 4km to go banner. Having passed through a roundabout, the riders face the difficult part just after the 3km to go mark when 3 sharp turns come in quick succession. From there, the road is almost completely straight to the finish, with two roundabout coming just before and after the 2km to go mark. A final bending right-hand turn comes just before the flamme rouge. The final kilometre is slightly descending at 0.4% and the road is 6m wide.


The stage is almost entirely flat and so it is certainly a day for the sprinters. However, the wind usually wreaks havoc on the peloton in the opening stages of Paris-Nice and as the riders head in all possible directions on the big circuit, there is a chance that the stage could be a crosswind drama.





Stage 2:

On the second day, the riders start their long journey from Paris to Nice. They take off from Rambouillet just southwest of the French capital and almost head in a straight line in a southeasterly direction over 205km to the finish in Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche. It is another flat day in the saddle as there are almost no elevation differences throughout the day.


The first part is the flattest but as the riders get closer to the finishing city, the roads become slightly more undulating, albeit without no major climbs. The only categorized climb is the category 3 Cote de La Ferte-Loupiere (1.2km, 4%) which comes 44.5km from the finish but it should have no major impact on the racing. The two intermediate sprints come at the 61.5km and 186.5km marks.


The final sprint comes at the first passage of the finish line, and the riders will end the race by doing a lap of 18.5km rectangular finishing circuit. The finish is technical as the riders will be challenged by a few corners near the end. The road is straight until 1.1km from the line where the riders will take a sharp left-hand turn. The real challenges are, however, the two right-hand corners that come in quick succession inside the final 500m, leading onto the 300m, 6m wide finishing straight. The penultimate kilometre is slightly uphill and after a short flat section, the final 500m ascend with an average gradient of 3-4%.


The flat roads will offer little drama but what could produce some spectacle is again the wind that usually influences at least one stage in the early part of Paris-Nice. It will either be a straightforward sprint stage or a true battle with echelons spread all over the road.





Stage 3:

The third stage will be the final opportunity for the pure sprinters as the riders continue their journey towards Nice by heading over 180km from Toucy to a spectacular finish on the Motorsport circuit of Magny-Cours. From the start, the riders travel along almost completely flat roads in a southern direction and the only element that breaks the monotony is the category 3 Cote de La Chapelle-Saint-André (2.1km, 4.2%) which comes after 74km of racing. The first intermediate sprint comes 4km further down the road in the city of Varzy.


34km from the finish, the riders reach the city of La Machine where they will contest the final intermediate sprint before turning right to head in a predominant westerly direction for the final part of the stage. The roads are still flat and will be so all the way to the finish on the Magny-Cours circuit.


The riders enter the circuit 4.5km from the finish after a series of 4 sharp turns just after the 5km to go mark and shortly after getting onto the famous roads, they will do another sharp left-hand turn. Then the roads are straight until 3.5km from the finish where a sharp left-hand turn will lead onto the final section. It consists of long straight roads that are disrupted by two 180-degree turns 2.7km and 1.8km from the finish respectively. Inside the final kilomtre, the riders do a sweeping 180-degree turn before taking the final left-hand turn 500m from the finish. There will be plenty of room in the sprint on the 8m wide road. The circuit is almost completely flat but it is always either very slightly up- or downhill. The riders will descend from the 2km to go mark until 500m from the line from where the roads are slightly ascending.


The stage is a true sprinters' dream and all the fast finishers will love to take the win in the spectacular surroundings. Again the wind can play crucial role in the outcome of the stage and the GC riders will have to stay aware throughout the entire day.





Stage 4:

It's time to continue the journey towards Nice when the riders travel in a straight line in a southeasterly direction from Nevers to Belleville on a 201.5km stage. The first part of the stage doesn't offer much change compared to recent days as the roads are completely flat, with the only highlight being the first intermediate sprint at the 56.5km mark.


However, the riders reach the outskirts of the hilly Massif-Central when they approach the finish in Belleville and this means that the roads become significantly more undulating. The first signal of the fact that the race is about to change its nature comes 64km from the finish when the riders go up the category 3 Cote de La Clayette (1km, 5.4%) but the real start of the "new race" doesn't come until the category 3  Col de Champ Juin (8.5km, 2.9%) has been tackled 45km from the finish. It is followed almost immediately  by the category 3 Col de Crie (1.7km, 4.5%) but a long, gradual descent means that the pair of climbs will play no major role.


The riders contest the final intermediate sprint 22.5km from the finish and the real finale starts 500m further up the road when the riders hit the bottom of the category 2 Cote de Mont Brouilly (3km, 8.4%). It is a very irregular climb which contains several steep sections, interspersed with shorter, flat stretches that give a little room for recovery. The first part is the easiest but the climb just gets steeper and steeper. The second kilometre has a gradient of around 9% while the average gradient from the 2km to 2.5km mark is a massive 12.3%, with the section having a very steep 25% stretch. The final 500m are slightly easier at 9.2%.


At its top, 14.5km remain and they consist of a fast downhill and then a slightly descending stretch of 10km to the finish in Belleville. Again the finish is rather technical as a long straight road with several roundabouts give way for four sharp turns that come in quick succession just after the passage of the flamme rouge. They lead onto the 800m finishing straight that is 6m wide. The final kilometre is slightly uphill with a 1.4% average gradient.


Unless the wind plays a role, there will be no big drama in the first part of the stage and it will all come down to a true spectacle on the final climb. We can expect some true fireworks on the very steep slopes but it will be difficult to keep an advantage on the long, straight roads to the finish. The most realistic scenario is that a reduced bunch will sprint it out for the honour of succeeding Thomas Voeckler, Robbie McEwen, and Fabio Baldato as recent stage winners in Belleville.







Stage 5:

The climbing legs will be back in action for the fifth day of racing which is another hilly affair. The riders will continue their journey towards the sun when they travel 153km in a straight line from Creche-sur-Saone to Rive-de-Gier in a southerly direction. Like yesterday, the stage may be divided into two parts, with an opening mostly flat section being followed by a hilly finale. Unlike yesterday, there is a couple of category 3 climbs in the flat opening part as the riders will tackle the Col de Brouilly (1.8km, 5.1%) and the Cote de Plantigny (2.3km, 3.7%) at the 26.5km and the 39.5km mark respectively.


The hilly finale kicks off when the riders have contested the first intermediate sprint in Brindas at the 87.5km mark and passed through the feed zone in Thurins 7km furthers up the road. From there they head straight up the long category 3 Cote de Saint-Martin-en-Haut (8.6km, 4.5%). At the top, 50km remain and they first consist of a short rolling section and then a long descent to the second intermediate sprint which is located 26.5km from the finish.


Like yesterday, there is a category 2 climb in the finale as the riders head straight up the Cote de Sainte-Catherine (12.5km, 2.8%). The top is located 12.5km from the finish and they are almost all downhill. There are a number of corners between the 5km and 2km to go marks as the riders finish the descent but the final 2.5km consist of a long straight road, with the only challenge being a roundabout 200m from the line. The descent finishes 2km from the finish and from there the road is only very slightly ascending to the finish in Rive-de-Gier.


The 4th and 5th stages may be built up in much the same way but their final climbs are completely different. While Wednesday's ascent was a short steep one, Thursday's is a long, gradual one. On these mellow gradients, it will be hard to make a difference and many of the fast finishers should be able to survive this one, meaning that we are in for another sprint from a small group at the finish.





Stage 6:

The stage that has the potential to open up the biggest time gaps between the GC riders comes on the sixth day when the riders travel a massive 221.5km from Saint-Saturnin-les-Avignon to Fayence. Overnight, the riders have been transported by buses to cthe ountry's south and they are now very close to the Cote d'Azur. What remains of their journey to Nic, is a straight easterly run and the riders will cover most of the distance in the sixth stage.


As it has been the case for the last two days, the challenges have been saved for the final part of the stage and again the race can be divided into two parts. The first part consists of a long flat run where only the category 3 Cote de Bonnieux (4.8km, 5.1%) will challenge the riders, with the top being located at the 36.5km mark. The first intermediate sprint comes 9km further up the road.


The flat run will end when the riders reach Draguignan which was the scene of the queen stage of the recent Tour du Haut-Var, meaning that rider are now in more hilly terrain. The riders will head straight up the category 2 Cote des Tuilieres (2.2km, 7.8%) whose top comes 57km from the finish, and it is followed by some undulating terrain that contains the category 3 Cote du Mont Meaulx (1.7km, 4.3%) which comes 31.5km from the finish.


With 28.5km still to go, the riders reach Fayence where they will contest the final intermediate sprint. 1.5km further up the road, they reach the finishing circuit, meaning that they will climb the steep Mur de Fayence that leads to the finish for the first time.


The riders will now do a lap of the 25.5km finishing circuit. The Mur de Fayence continues as the category 2 Col de Bourigaille (8.2km, 5.9%) whose top is located 19km from the finish and from there, it is a long gradual descent to the city of Callian 8km from the finish. The roads are now flat until they gradually start to rise to the bottom of the Mur. At 1.5km and with an average gradient of 8.6% it is a real leg breaker which has some very steep sections at the bottom. It gets less steep in the second part, with the final kilometre having a gradient of 7.3%. The riders will travel along a straight road from the 5km to go mark to the 2km to go mark where they will pass through a roundabout. When they hit the Mur, they will tackle a number of hairpin bends, with the final one leading onto the 200m, 6m wide finishing straight.


Fayence was the scene of one of the most dramatic stages in recent Paris-Nice history when Alberto Contador was hit by a hunger knock on a similar finishing circuit in the 2009 edition of the race. Luis Leon Sanchez exploited the situation to escape from a select lead group with Frank Schleck, Antonio Colom, Sylvain Chavanel and Jens Voigt and took both a solo stage win and the leader's jersey that he would defend on the final stage. The finishing circuit that year was longer and didn't include the Mur de Fayence but also send the riders up the Cote de Bourigaille.


All the action will happen on the final circuit where we are likely to see some action on the Bourigaille. However, teams like Sky and Astana with the best climbers in the race could also try to set a hard tempo up that climb to tire out their rivals ahead of the final passage of the Mur. A reduced group is likely to hit that ascent together and then it will all come down to the best legs on the short, steep climb.





Stage 7:

The riders have now reached Nice and the final two days consist of visits into the hilly hinterlands of the big city at the Cote d'Azur. The first of those small journeys is the 195.5km penultimate stage that take the riders from Mougins near the coast into the hills and back to the sea and a finish in Biot at the Sophia Antipolis. The race is a really hilly affair that contains a serious amount of climbing and is a typical Saturday stage in the final weekend of Paris-Nice as it is long, undulating with a lot of climbs but with no big summit finish.


The start is rather easy as the riders head along slightly undulating and gradually rising roads to the first intermediate sprint at the 34km mark in Tourettes-sur-Loup where the late Xavier Tondo won a stage in 2010. From there, things  get serious as the riders start the first category 1 climb of the race, the Col de Vence (9.7km, 6.6%).


The ascent kicks off a very hilly zone where it is almost constantly up or down. The descent leads to the bottom of the category 3 Cote de Cipieres (3.1km, 5%) which is a small appetizer for the next category 1 climb, the Col de l'Ecre (11.1km, 4.9%) which takes the riders to the highest point of the entire race at 1119m about sea level.


With the top coming at the 89km mark, the riders have now reached a plateau where they will stay on flat roads for several kilometres until they start the long, gradual descent back towards the coast. It is interspersed with a few small leg breakers, the category 3 Cote de Cipieres (3.1km, 5%) and the category 2 Cote de Gourdon (4.8km, 3.6), with the latter coming 64.5km from the finish and preceding the major part of the descent.


47km from the finish, the riders will enter the finishing circuit that is an undulating 19km affair. They will cross the line for the first time with 37.5km to go and then they will do two full laps of the circuit. The first part is predominantly uphill while the second part is mainly downhill and leads to the final 2km climb to the finish. However, the roads are always up or down, with several short, steep climbs making it difficult to find a rhythm.


The climb to the finish is not very difficult and has a rather constant gradient of around 5%. However, the final is rather technical as the final 5km are held on a very winding roads that constantly twists and turns its way to the finish. Inside the final kilometre, there are two sweeping turns on the bending roads and the riders will pass straight through a roundabout just 100m from the line which is located on a 6m wide road.


The stage is very similar to the penultimate stage of the 2011 edition of the race which also contained some major climbing in the first part and finished with two laps on the exact same finishing circuit. The race took place under torrential rain, with several riders abandoning due to the cold conditions. There was some selection on the climbs but it was a rather big group that entered the finishing circuit. Several riders tried their hand on the circuit and Remy Di Gregorio was strong enough to take a beautiful solo win when he made a late attack. The peloton splintered on the finishing circuit but the selection was made more by the slick roads and the many crashes than by the toughness of the circuit and the gaps between the favourites on the final climb to the finish was a question of mere seconds. This year we could easily see a very aggressive race but it is hard to imagine that there will be any differences between the best riders in the race.





Stage 8:

When Paris-Nice has not ended with the Col d'Eze time trial, it has always finished with a short stage in Nice's hilly hinterland, the climb up Col d'Eze and a fast downhill to the finish on the Promenade d'Anglais. The stage has often produced some very aggressive and exciting racing as the terrain invites itself to attacks and it is the final chance to make a difference.


As usual, the stage starts and finishes in Nice and this year it will have a length of 128km. The start is a tough one as the first part is a long gradual uphill that passes through the intermediate sprint at the 19km mark and culminates after 33.5km at the top of the category 2 Cote de Duranus (3.9km, 4.3%). From there, the roads are slightly undulating until the riders climb the category 2 Cote de Chateauneuf (5.4km, 4.4%) which is followed by a fast descent and the category 2 Col de Calaison (6.3km, 4.4%).


Next up is a gradual descent that lead to the bottom of the day's hardest climb, the category 1 Cote de Peille (6.6km, 6.8%). At the top 41km remain and the riders stay at a plateau for several kilometres before they reach the descent that lead to the bottom of the Col d'Eze.


The famous category 1 ascent (4.3km, 6.7%) starts 19.3km from the finish. At the top, there is a short flat section that leads to the final intermediate sprint with crucial bonus seconds on offer 13.5km from the finish. Then it is time for the fast and technical descent that has several difficult bends and ends no sooner than 3km from the finish.


From there it is rather technical with three sharp turns coming in quick succession around the 2km to go mark. A gradually bending road leads the riders to the flamme rouge from which it is straight up the 7m wide Promenade d'Anglais to the finish. There is a small 500m climb with a 6% gradient 1500m from the finish and then a 500m descent leads to the final flat 500m. The winners of the most recent road stages in Nice were Thomas Voeckler, Amael Moinard, Antonio Colom, and Luis-Leon Sanchez who have all arrived either solo at the finish or won sprints from 2- or 3-rider groups.


The climbing is not overly tough but this may be the best option for the climbers to get rid of the classics riders. However, the mellow gradients mean that it is hard for the best riders to create too much of a difference between each other but we are sure to see some very aggressive racing. Due to the long distance between the finals climbs, it will probably all come down to the Col d'Eze but we would expect the pace to be rather fast throughout the entire stage as riders try to make the stage a tough one that will crown a deserved winner of the Race to the Sun.





The weather

Like most of the spring races, last year's edition of the Paris-Nice was a cold affair and the weather has usually played a very important role in the historic race. The early stages have often been shortened or even cancelled due to snow and usually the wind has hd a big influence on the racing in at least one of the flat stages.


This year's edition of the Race to the Sun seems to be the complete opposite to last year's as the race shapes up to be a really pleasant affair. The first stage should take place in beautiful sunshine and 18-degree temperatures and there will only be a moderate wind from a southern direction, meaning that it will be hard to split things up on the opening day.


The conditions will be almost the same for the second day of racing where the riders will again enjoy plenty of sunshine and 16-degree temperatures. There will only be a light wind from a northern direction, meaning that it should be another day without too much drama. The conditions will be entirely similar for the third and fourth stages, meaning that there will be no windy day in the flat stages of this year's race but it may be slightly cooler on Wednesday.


For Thursday's fifth stage, there should again be plenty of sunshine and the temperatures are expected to still be at around 16 degrees. The wind direction will have changed as it now comes from the southeast but there will only be a very light breeze. It will be the same for Friday's stage but there is a chance of a shower late in the afternoon.


That will signal a slight change in conditions for the weekend for which the weather forecasts currently predict more clouds, slightly cooler 14-degree temperatures and a maybe a bit of rain. The wind is not expected to change. That is still far into the future, however, and much could change before the riders get to the hills near Nice. Nonetheless, nothing seems to prevent that this year's edition will be a very rare one, with plenty of sunshine, nice temperatures, and very little wind throughout the entire week.


The favourites

It's a harder task than usual to pick the winner of the Paris-Nice. With no time trial and no big summit finishes, you don't have to look at the best climbers or the most versatile riders to find the winner of the race. In this year's edition of the Race to the Sun, aggressiveness, punchy climbing, and a fast sprint are the skills that are needed to come away with the win.


As the weather forecasts predict very little wind for the race, the opening three stages are unlikely to play a major role in the outcome of the race and so the race for the overall win boils down to the final 5 stages. The single most decisive stage will undoubtedly be the sixth that finishes with the steep climb in Fayence and this is the only chance for the climbers to make a real difference. To win the race, you either have to limit your losses and be very close to the best climbers on this stage or you need to be at the very front.


The second important factor will be the bonus seconds. It is hard to imagine that the best climbers will be able to get rid of each other on the remaining 7 stages but there should be several sprint finishes from small groups in store as well as intermediate sprints along the route. With 10, 6, and 4 seconds on offer at the finish lines and 3, 2, and 1 seconds to the first three riders at the intermediates, lost time in the uphill finish can easily be erased if you have a fast sprint. Stages 4, 5, 7, and 8 could easily come down to sprints from small groups and this means that the riders who can both climb and sprint will have plenty of opportunities to take time.


This means that the race boils down to an interesting battle between the climbers who will try to make use of the uphill finish on stage 6, the very steep climb on stage 4, and the Col d'Eze on stage 8 to get rid of the fast classics riders. At the same time, those riders will all try to stay with the best on those three key climbs and use their fast sprint to erase any time loss they may have had.


This means that the winner will either be one of the best climbers in the race who also has a solid sprint or a very fast rider who can score many seconds, limit his losses on stage 6, and follow the best on the two other key climbs of the race. This makes the race an open affair with several potential winners.


The favourite to stand on the top step of the podium in Nice must be world champion Rui Costa. The Portuguese has all the skills to excel in this kind of race and his showing in the recent Volta ao Algarve where he finished 2nd on three very different stages and 3rd overall, indicates that he is already in great condition. His main targets are the Ardennes classics and the Tour de France but his first important goal is the Paris-Nice.


Costa is certainly one of the best riders for the kind of short, sharp climbs that will dominate this race and he excels in the kind of uphill finish that comes on stage 6. He will be one of the favourites to win that stage and he also has a very fast sprint that will allow him to take bonus seconds in some of the sprint finishes. He is an excellent descender and may even try to go on the attacks on some of the difficult descents and the combination of those three attributes could easily be a winning one. He needs to ride hard on the climbs to get rid of the faster guys but among the real climbers in this race, he is the fastest sprinter.


His biggest challenger could be Carlos Betancur. The Colombian showed his excellent skills during an impressive spring campaign in 2013 but had a terrible end to his season. However, no one can doubt his talent and it is testament to his amazing and versatile skills that he won the Tour du Haut-Var overall despite being 6kg overweight. That race should have been too easy for a punchy climber like Betancur but he showed excellent condition to beat no less of a figure than John Degenkolb in an uphill sprint before escaping with Amael Moinard on the final climb in the queen stage.


Betancur will be the favourite to win stage 6 as he excels on this kind of short, steep climbs but he needs to maximize his time gains on that day. He is not as fast as Costa and most of his key rivals in a flat sprint and he doesn't have their descending skills either. However, he is a very aggressive rider that may find a way to score some seconds in the intermediates. For Betancur, it will be important that the race becomes selective on stage 6 but not so selective on stage 4 and 8 that a rider like Costa can score too many seconds to take back any time lost in the uphill finish.


Simon Gerrans may have claimed that his main targets are stage wins but it would be stupid for the Australian to rule a shot at the GC. For an Ardennes specialist and multiple Tour Down Under winner, the climbs in the race should not be too hard and he is a very fast sprinter who will be one of the major favourites to win stages 4, 5, 7 and 8 if they come down to a sprint from a reduced group. Gerrans has even won small bunch sprints as he did in last year's Pais Vasco and Catalunya and he beat Peter Sagan to win a stage in the Tour de France.


He is unlikely to match the best climbers on stage 6 but he could easily erase his deficit in the sprint finishes. His key challenge will be to limit his losses in the uphill finish and survive the fierce pace set by the climbers on stage 8. If he does so, he will be an obvious winner candidate.


Gerrans' form is a bit uncertain. He was in excellent condition in Australia earlier this year but has only done a single race in Europe when he lined up in Thursday's GP Camaiore. In that race, he played the role of domestique but he has made the Paris-Nice a key target and he claims to be fully ready for the race.


Alongside Betancur, the best climber in the race is likely to be defending champion Richie Porte but the Australian needs to come up with a good plan if he wants to win on this course. He has no sprint and will find it hard to score bonus seconds in any other stages than the uphill finish in Fayence. To win the race, he needs to use his strong Sky team to make the race as hard as possible, drop all his rivals in Fayence, and ride really hard to make a big selection on stages 4 and 8.


Porte showed good condition in Australia in January but didn't excel in the Vuelta a Andalucia where he showed clear signs of weakness. He is still ramping up his condition for the Giro and even though this race is target, he is not yet at his best. To win on this course, he would probably need to be at 100% but he will still be in with a short if he emerges as the strongest climber on stage 4.


Omega Pharma-Quick Step have several options for this race but their best card seems to be world cyclo-cross champion Zdenek Stybar. The Czech is fast, very aggressive, and a solid climber on short, steep ascents. He showed great condition in Oman when he finished in the lead group on the tough stage 4 and even though the cold caused him to perform below expectations in the Omloop, there is no doubt that he will be fully ready for this race.


Stybar is unlikely to be strong enough to follow the best in Fayence but if he can limit his losses, his fast finish could allow him to score a lot of bonus seconds. His main disadvantage is the presence of Gianni Meersman on the roster as the Belgian will probably be the preferred sprinter on stages 4 and 5 which would take away a couple of options for Stybar.


On paper, Porte may be the Sky captain but their best shot at the overall win could easily be Geraint Thomas. The Brit has evolved into an excellent climber as he most recently proved when he ripped the peloton to pieces in the Vuelta a Andalucia. He has a very fast sprint, meaning that he has all the skills to win this race.


In fact, he would have been higher up our list if he was the clear captain but he may have to sacrifice his own chances to make the race as hard as possible for Porte. If he gets the chance to play his own cards, however, he will be a very dangerous man.


Tejay van Garderen is one of the few GC riders who has decided to do Paris-Nice but the American admits that it will be hard to come away with the win. He finds himself in the same situation as Porte and needs to make the race as hard as possible. He may be slightly faster than the Australian in a sprint but is probably not as strong on the climbs. On the other hand, he showed excellent condition when he finished 2nd in the Tour of Oman and so it can't be ruled out that he will take the win by virtue of a solid ride on stage 6.


Sylvain Chavanel is a perennial top contender for Paris-Nice and if the race had just had some kind of time trial, this course would have given him his best ever chance to win the race. Chavanel has the aggressive nature required to prevail, he is an excellent descender, and he has a fast sprint as he proved when he won a reduced bunch sprint to take the penultimate stage last year. He hasn't shown great condition so far but the pattern is the usual one and he is always at 100% in the Race to the Sun which is his first big objective. It will be hard for him to stay with the best in the uphill finish but if he can limit his losses, attacks and bonus seconds may give him the win.


One of the most in-form riders is certainly Romain Bardet who was clearly the strongest rider in the recent Drome Classic which had a very strong field. He ended up winning that race which was very similar to many of the Paris-Nice stages. The young Frenchman is a very punchy climber and his performances in Oman and France suggest that he will be among the best in the uphill finish. He has a decent sprint but against a rider like Costa, he will have little chance. Bardet is likely to finish in the top 5 but it will be hard to come away with the win.


Finally, we will point to Francesco Gavazzi. Vincenzo Nibali may be the Astana leader but their best card could easily be their fast Italian. Gavazzi has won a tough uphill finish in the Tour of Beijing and he has shown excellent climbing condition right from the start of the season. He has a fast sprint at the end of a hard race but has the bad trend of never winning races that are tailor-made for him. In Oman and the recent GP Camaiore, he was climbing really well though, and if he can finish in the top 3 on a couple of stages, he could come away with the win.


***** Rui Costa

**** Carlos Betancur, Simon Gerrans

*** Richie Porte, Zdenek Stybar, Geraint Thomas

** Tejay van Garderen, Sylvain Chavanel, Romain Bardet, Francesco Gavazzi

* Arthur Vichot, Tony Gallopin, Jan Bakelants, Enrico Gasparotto, Greg Van Avermaet, Damiano Caruso, Julien Simon, Edvald Boasson Hagen



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