This World Tour event is known as the ‘Race to the Sun’ because the race leaves the cold wintry climes of Paris and heads south towards the traditionally warmer weather of the Cote d’Azur to finish in Nice.
The parcours for this year’s eight-stage Paris-Nice is bookended by two individual time trials. The race will be dipping a toe into cycling history with a start in the footsteps of the now defunct Grand Prix des Nations and a nail-biting climax on Col d’Eze where riders such as Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Miguel Indurain have sealed their Paris-Nice victories in years gone by. Its reappearance as a time trial after an absence of 11 years might mean the general classification will only be decided at the last moment.
What kind of race is it?
The first Paris-Nice was held in 1933 and organised by French newspaper Le Petit Journal. The riders set off at five o’clock in the morning to cover five stages totalling 1,257km, the first a whopping 312km to Dijon! The race was run every year, excluding during the Second World War and the period 1947-1950. In 1951 the race was revived and continued its traditional route, apart from 1959 when its 11 stages concluded in Rome.
Paris-Nice, just like the Tour de France, was lit up in the 1960s by the intense rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor where the latter generally prevailed over the former. Although Poupou did eventually take back-to-back victories, even beating the next great racer to emerge, Eddy Merckx, on the Col d’Eze. However, the rider who’s inscribed this race more times than any other on his palmares is Ireland’s Sean Kelly who took his first of seven victories in 1982.
In 2002, organisation of the race was assumed by the Tour de France’s organiser (ASO) and since 2005 it’s been part of the UCI’s ProTour. Paris-Nice is a WorldTour event so all 18 ProTeams are taking part, plus wild-card entries have been granted to Saur-Sojasun, Cofidis, Europcar and Project i4ti.
The most recent winners of the race are:
- 2007: Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel)
- 2008: Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)
- 2009: Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne)
- 2010: Alberto Contador (Astana)
- 2011: Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad)
What happened last year?
Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) became only the fourth German to win Paris-Nice, after compatriots Andreas Kloden (2000), Jorg Jaksche (2004) and Rolf Wolfshohl (1968). He secured his biggest win to date with a solid performance in the climbs, good positioning in the tough, tactical transition stages and a dominating performance on stage six’s individual time-trial in Aix-en-Provence where he put 20 seconds into Bradley Wiggins (Sky), who finished second, and 36 seconds into RadioShack’s Kloden.
The Race to the Sun started in bright sunshine and a win for Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoliel-DCM) on Sunday’s opening stage in a bunch sprint from Jeremy Roy (FDJ) and Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo). Stage two saw another big group sprint, this time won by Greg Henderson (Sky) – who dedicated his win to the victims of the New Zealand earthquake – from Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad).
An early break on stage three built a gap of nearly five minutes until Vacansoliel started the chase with 75km to the finish in Nuits-Saint-Georges. The leaders were pulled back with 20km to go, after the climb of the Cote de Becoup. The sprinters teams took over and Goss won ahead of Haussler to take the overall lead.
A five-man break enlivened stage four to Belleville which included the previous day’s attacker, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) but this time he pulled it off with a stage win. De Gendt was also in the break and took back the leader’s jersey. On stage five, Kloden took a surprising sprint win – and the leader’s jersey – from a small group. The crucial 27km individual time trial was always going to be the deciding factor. Everyone’s favourite, the young German sensation Martin, outdid his fellow countryman to take the stage and with it the yellow jersey.
On the penultimate stage, Astana’s Remy di Gregorio put in a late solo attack, 13km from the line on the difficult rain-slicked finishing circuit into Biot, to take only the second victory of his pro career, but by far the most prestigious. He almost crashed on the run-in but managed to save himself from a spectacular skid on a wet zebra crossing. It was still pouring down with rain on Sunday, when an even more heavily depleted peloton couldn’t prevent Voeckler throwing caution to the wind on the descents to take his second stage win; the first Frenchman to win two stages in Paris-Nice since Laurent Jalabert in 1997.
Martin wasn’t challenged on those two subsequent rain-soaked stages. His rivals seemed happy to play it safe in the treacherous conditions and settle for their respective GC positions. Kloden finished second, 36 seconds behind, Wiggins finished third, 41 seconds down. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) donned the points jersey, Remi Pauriol (Cofidis) was King of the Mountains, RadioShack were top team and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) was the best young rider.
1. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) 30:46:17
2. Andreas Kloden (RadioShack) +0:36
3. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:41
4. Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) +1:10
5. Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:21
6. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:29
7. Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack) +1:34
8. Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack) +1:36
9. Xavier Tondo (Movistar) +1:53
10. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +2:04
For the first time in its history, Paris-Nice will start from the Chevreuse Valley. Although the riders will only have to cover a distance of 9.6km in Sunday’s time trial, between Dampierre-en-Yvelines and Saint-Remy-les-Chevreuse, they will be riding on the same roads where the Grand Prix des Nations, considered to be an unofficial time trial world championship, took place. On the slopes of Cote de Chateaufort-en-Yvelines there’s a monument honouring Jacques Anquetil, the nine-time title-holder. The stage will put a strong rider into the leader’s yellow jersey and probably the spotted one too.
Days two and three from Nantes-la-Jolie to Orleans (185km) and Vierzon to Lac de Vassiviere (194 km) respectively are sprint stages, albeit ones which both finish uphill. After two relatively flat stages, the route starts to progressively undulate. Stage four’s Brive-la-Gaillarde to Rodez (183km) will be much more testing with a number of category two and three climbs culminating in the Cote de Bourran (500 metres at 7.9% gradient), perhaps giving one of the peloton’s many breakaway artists an opportunity to steal some time.
One of the most exciting short climbs in France will then conclude day five’s 178km queen stage from Onet-le-Chateau, which takes in two cat. 3 climbs, one cat. 2 climb and two cat. 1 climbs before the final montée Laurent Jalabert at Mende – 3km at an average of 10.1% – certain to spice things up and open up some real time gaps on general classification. It was last used in the 2010 Tour de France, where Alberto Contador (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) jumped clear and the latter won the sprint to the line.
On Friday, the peloton will travel 176.5km from Suze-la-Rousse to Sisteron over another undulating but sprinter-friendly course, guaranteed to tire legs already heavy from the previous day’s stage, which finishes after a circuit of the town taking in the Cotes des Marquises (average gradient 6.8%).
Sisteron will host the following morning’s start and the race’s longest stage. The 220km route to Nice includes the cat. 1 Col de Vence, unlikely to be decisive as it’s sufficiently far enough from the finish (65km) for the peloton to regroup. One assumes the course’s aim is to keep the time gaps relatively tight before the final day decider on Col d’Eze where some of the sport’s greatest champions have triumphed: Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Miguel Indurain. Who’ll join them? We’ll know when the race concludes on Sunday 11th, 501 metres above Nice. (For a 3D view of the climb, see Cycling the Alps’ website here.)
Who to watch
This should be more properly entitled ‘Who not to watch’. There’s a veritable smorgasbord of talent assembled for our delectation including, according to ASO, 10 of the top 15 from last year’s Tour de France, a number of whom have ‘home’ advantage as they live and train down on the Cote d’Azur.
First up are ‘Frandy’ – the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy (RadioShack-Nissan) – who are supported by a highly talented team including former winner Andreas Kloden. But they’ll face stiff competition from rival teams, including Astana’s Janez Brajkovic, BMC with Tejay Van Garderen, Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, Rabobank’s former winner Luis Leon Sanchez, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, Liquigas’ Ivan Basso, Katusha’s Denis Menchov and GreenEDGE’s Simon Gerrans.
The French teams will be out to shine in one of their important tours and will be looking for stage wins and good positions on general classification. In-form FDJ-BigMat will have Jeremy Roy in the breakaways, Remi Pauriol mopping up mountain points, and Yauheni Hutarovitch and Sandy Casar looking to score on the sprint stages. AG2R have Nico Roche and Jean-Christophe Peraud spearheading their challenge, Saur-Sojasun have Jerome Coppel, Cofidis come with Rein Taaramae, David Moncoutie and the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin. Finally, Europcar have housewives’ favourite Thomas Voeckler who revealed in this week’s L’Equipe he’s aware he’s none too popular in the peloton.
In the absence of significant time trial kilometres, defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) might find himself relinquishing leadership duties to teammates Levi Leipheimer or Sylvain Chavanel, while Tom Boonen will be firing on all cyclinders in the sprints. He’ll have tough opposition from Project 1t4i’s young guns Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb, in-form Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale), Garmin-Barracuda’s Koldo Fernandez and Heinrich Haussler, plus Katusha’s Denis Galimzyanov and not forgetting the mighty Thor Hushovd (BMC). One thing’s for sure, Lotto-Belisol’s Greg Henderson and Adam Hansen will be trying to outdo one another in the twittersphere, and everyone else on the road.
A VeloVoices reader has selected rider 97, Rabobank’s Dennis Van Winden as the one to watch during this year’s Race to the Sun. Dennis, like a lot of young Dutch riders, has progressed through Rabobank’s feeder squad earning stage wins in races such as the Tour de L’Avenir and Vuelta Ciclista a Leon. He joined the main team in 2010 and maybe this will be his year. I understand he’s nicknamed Pipo because of his resemblance to Pippo Pozzato.
March 4th: Stage 1 – Dampierre-en-Yvelines to Saint-Remy-les-Chevreuse, 9.4km individual time trial
March 5th: Stage 2 – Mantes-la-Jolie to Orleans, 185km
March 6th: Stage 3 – Vierzon to Lac de Vassiviere, 194km
March 7th: Stage 4 – Brive-la-Gaillarde to Rodez , 183km
March 8th: Stage 5 – Onet-le-Chateau to Mende, 178km
March 9th: Stage 6 – Suze-la-Rousse to Sisteron, 176.5km
March 10th: Stage 7 – Sisteron to Nice, 220km
March 11th: Stage 8 – Nice to Col d’Eze, 9.6km individual time trial
Paris-Nice starts on Sunday 4th March and concludes on Sunday 11th. Live action will be shown daily on Eurosport and France 3. For other channels check cyclingfans.com. For detailed 3D maps and profiles of all the climbs, visit cyclingthealps.com.