The first important stage race of the season begins tomorrow in Houdan, France with the 69th edition of Paris-Nice. This yearâ€™s Race to the Sun has taken a somewhat different approach than in past years, forgoing the traditional opening Prologue for a road stage, saving the contre le montre for longer, 27-kilometer stage later in the week. But in the end, while important, the determining factor will likely be the raceâ€™s hills, many of which come jammed into the raceâ€™s final four road stages. By the end, look for an adequate time trialist but exceptional climberâ€”and descenderâ€”to take the win in Nice.
Hereâ€™s a quick rundown of each teamâ€™s prospects:
Ag2r – Ag2r brings a talented squad to Houdan led by Nicolas Roche, the 15th-place finisher in last yearâ€™s Tour de France. While Roche is only an outside contender for the overall title, his teammates Jean-Christophe Peraud, Anthony Ravard and Maxime Bouet are good bets for stage winsâ€”the fast finishing Ravard could be especially dangerous during the first three stages.
BMC – The bulk of BMCâ€™s squad will be lining in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico, leaving Steve Morabito, Karsten Kroon, and Armael Moinard to hunt for stage wins in France. Kroon had a disappointing 2010â€”he would love a stage win this week to start-off 2011 on the right foot.
Bretagne Schuller – Sylvain Calzati leads this Professional Continental team in its first Race to the Sun. Calzati, a stage winner in the 2006 Tour de France, is the teamâ€™s best bet for a win this week. Look to see at least one of the squadâ€™s riders in each dayâ€™s break in an attempt to justify their wild card invitation.
Cofidis – Rein Taaramae leads Cofidis alongside David Moncoutie in this yearâ€™s Paris-Nice. An adequate time trialist, Taarameâ€™s an outside bet for a top-5 finish (he finished eighth in the Volta ao Algarve earlier this season). Look for Moncoutie to join Julien El Fares and Samuel Dumoulin in hunting for breakaway stage wins, while Tony Gallopin will try his hand in field sprints on flatter days.
Euskaltel-Euskadi – Samuel Sanchez comes to Paris-Nice as a rather under-the-radar contender. While he hasnâ€™t garnered many headlines thus far this season, the Spaniard can climb, time trial, and descend; the latter could prove successful on the final stage, a day ending with a rapid descent of the Col dâ€™Eze before the finish line. Romain Sicard will also be looking for a top-15 performance in front of his home fans.
Francaise des Jeux – With a roster including Sandy Casar, Pierrick Fedrigo, Remi Pauriol, and Omloop-animator Yoann Offredo, FDJ comes to Paris-Nice clearly hunting for stage wins.Â Fridayâ€™s time trial will likely rule out the teamâ€™s GC hopes, but thereâ€™s plenty of talent for stage hunting.
HTC-High Road – HTC enters Paris-Nice with not one but two overall contenders in Tony Martin and Telay Van Garderen. Martinâ€™s the faster time trialist of the two, but Van Garderen might perform better in the hills. Should both men end the day Friday in the top-3, it will be interesting to see how the peloton reacts. Matthew Goss will target the first three days, heâ€™s an easy pick to take the first yellow jersey of the race.
Katusha – Like BMC, the bulk of Katushaâ€™s squad is racing in Italy, leaving Vladimir Karpets to shoot for a top-10, while men such as Yuri Trofimov and Mikhail Ignatiev hunt for stage wins. Belgiumâ€™s Leif Hoste is using the race to prepare for Aprilâ€™s cobbled classics as well.
Lampre-ISD – Lampre brings an exciting team to Paris-Nice, full of men likely to contend for stage wins. Diego Ulissi and Daniele Pietropolli have both won races this season, while Francesco Gavazziâ€™s a fast finisher who can survive some of the hillsâ€”look for these three Wednesday and Thursday. Simon Spilakâ€™s the teamâ€™s GC contender; he won last yearâ€™s Tour de Romandie and could finish in the top-5 here.
Liquigas-Cannondale – Wunderkind Peter Sagan burst onto the radar at last yearâ€™s Paris-Nice thanks to two stage wins and the green jersey. This year he arrives as one of the top favorites for a repeat performance after his overall win in last weekâ€™s Giro di Sardegna. Heâ€™ll have the full complement of his team behind him, with Kristjan Koren serving as another GC option should Sagan crack in the mountains.
Team Movistar – Xavier Tondo and Benat Intxausti lead Movistar at this yearâ€™s Paris-Nice. Tondo won last yearâ€™s sixth stage into Tourettes-sur-Loup and will likely the teamâ€™s top choice for a high overall placing, but Intxaustiâ€™s someone to watch as wellâ€”he had several impressive performances riding for Euskaltel last year. Joaquin Rojas is the teamâ€™s best bet for a sprint stage win, while Ignatas Konovalovas should have a good ride in the ITT.
Omega Pharma-Lotto – While Philippe Gilbert and the classics squad warm-up down in Italy, Jurgen Van den Broeck and the grand tour team compete in France. Last yearâ€™s fifth-place finisher in the Tour de France, VDBekeâ€™s podium spot in the Ruta del Sol indicates he might have the legs for a similar result here. Stage 6â€™s ITT will be a good test for the Belgian, and more than likely the reason why heâ€™s included the Race to the Sun on his schedule. Others to watch include Jussi, Veikkanen, Jan Bakelants, and Jurgen Roelandts.
Astana – Astana won last yearâ€™s Paris-Nice with Alberto Contador; this year the team returns, hoping Alexandre Vinokourov or Roman Kreuziger can repeat the feat. Both riders are more than capable of winning race outright, but at this point in the season, they might not be targeting it. Robert Kiserlovskiâ€™s another rider to watch, as is Tomas Vaitkus. Remi Di Gregorio continues his last gasp season in Paris-Nice as wellâ€”look to see him a break or two once the race hits the hills.
Quick-Step – Sylvain Chavanel has always wanted to add a Paris-Nice title to his resume. He returns for another try this year, but I think the course just doesnâ€™t suit the Frenchman. Heâ€™s best hunting for stage wins along with Jerome Pineau and Geert Steegmans.
Rabobank – Luis Leon Sanchez leads Rabobank at Paris-Nice supported by Bauke Mollema and Juan Manual Garate. Sanchez is one of Paris-Niceâ€™s most consistent GC performers of late, finishing each of the last four editions inside the top-5 and winning the overall in 2009. The addition of a longer time trail suits the Spaniard, as do several days of aggressive, technical terrain.
Saxo Bank – While Alberto Contador tries to win the Vuelta de Mucia, his teammate and 2010 Giro GC-revelation Richie Porte will attempt to do the same in France. The long time trial favors Porteâ€™s talents, but his performance in the mountains will ultimately determine his fate.
Team Sky – Sky comes to Paris-Nice with a well-rounded team capable of contending throughout the week. Michael Rogers and Bradley Wiggins will be the teamâ€™s GC hopesâ€”Rogers is a much safer bet for a top-5 resultâ€”while Simon Gerrans, Gerraint Thomas, and Greg Henderson will hunt for stage wins. And donâ€™t overlook Rigoberto Uran. The Colombianâ€™s immensely talented and could easily end the week as his teamâ€™s best-placed rider.
Europcar – It was announced this week that Europcar has been left off the list for the Ardennes Classics, a fact that will like have Thomas Voeckler and the rest of his team eager to send a message to the ASO. Voecklerâ€™s win in the Tour du Haut Var a few weeks ago speaks to his fitness, while Pierre Rolland will shoot for a top-10 finish overall.
Garmin-CervÃ©lo – While Farrar and Thor race themselves into shape for the classics in Italy, Heinrich Haussler attempts to regain his level from 2009 at Paris-Nice. Heâ€™s joined by GC hopes Christophe Le Mevel and Ryder Hesjedal. And keep an eye on Andrew Talansky, the second-place finisher in last yearâ€™s Tour de lâ€™Avenir. The young American might find his way into the top-10.
Leopard Trek – Frank Schleck leads the way for Leopard Trek at Paris-Nice, supported by Jens Voigt, Linus Gerdemann, Jakob Fuglsang, and Brice Feillu. Come to think of it, any one of these riders could end up leading the team by the end of the week. And while weâ€™re at it, letâ€™s throw Maxime Monfort into the mix, the talented Belgian can climb and time trial, a perfect combination for this weekâ€™s event.
Radio Shack – Paris-Nice gives us our first good look at The Shackâ€™s post-Lance Tour squad with Janez Brajkovic, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden leading the team. The race is Brajkovicâ€™s first chance to lead the team in a week-long stage race since last yearâ€™s DauphinÃ©, where the Slovenian took an impressive victory. A win this week, and heâ€™s virtually guaranteed a chance to at least co-captain the team in July.
Vacansoleil-DCM – Stijn Devolder and Bjorn Leukemans have chosen Paris-Nice as their final build-up for the classics. But while neither will turn down a chance for a stage win, French sprinter Roman Feillu is a better candidate for success this weekâ€”especially in Stages 1 through 3. And watch-out for Dutchman Lieuwe Westra in Fridayâ€™s ITT, heâ€™s an underrated specialist in the discipline.
Many are calling Peter Sagan a candidate to win the overall, but I just donâ€™t see it. Heâ€™ll win a stage or two, but the hills and time trial will prove too much for the young Slovakian. I see HTC and the two Sanchezâ€™s fighting this one out, with Luis Leon Sanchez getting the better of Tony Martin and Tejay Van Garderenâ€”possibly winning it all in the final stage.
Paris-Nice: 1. Luis Leon Sanchez, 2. Tony Martin, 3. Samuel Sanchez, 4. Tejay Van Garderen, 5. Jurgen Van den Broeck