Tomorrow sees the start of Europe's first big stage race of the season, Paris-Nice, and it looks like being an open race, with many of the riders expected to challenge in the Tour de France this summer choosing to stay away, with some racing Tirreno-Adriatico instead. Here's our guide to the stages, plus a brief overview of some of the men with hopes of succeeding Bradley Wiggins in winning the GC.
Those include two young American riders of whom big things are expected - Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky and Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing.
Talansky was second overall to Wiggins at last year's Tour de Romandie and went on to finish seventh at the Vuelta in his Grand Tour debut, while Van Garderen was fifth overall at both Paris-Nice and in the Tour de France.
Both are aged 24, both can climb, and both can time trial - although admittedly there isn't too much of the latter in this year's parcours, which includes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Prologue and, as last year, the Col d'Eze time trial that was once a regular feature of the race.
Last year's surprise runner-up, Lieuwe Westra of Vacansoleil-DCM, is back and rode well in this year's Tour of Algarve, and the Dutch team has a second card to play through Thomas De Gendt, who grabbed a place on the Giro d'Italia podium last May with that stunning ride on the final road stage to win on the Stelvio, plus a decent time trial in Milan on the closing day.
The Netherlands' other WorldTour team, Blanco, has had a good run of results in the early season, and Robert Gesink is a strong pick for the podium, and possibly the overall itself, especially if he's there or thereabouts on the final day's time trial - he rode very strongly to win a similar stage in last year's Tour of California.
With Wiggins and Chris Froome both missing, the race gives an opportunity for Richie Porte or new signing Jonathan Tiernan Locke to step up. Porte, a past wearer of the maglia rosa at the Giro while with Saxo Bank, seized his chance last year to win the Tour of Algarve.
Tour of Britain winner Tiernan-Locke burst onto the international scene last year with a couple of wins in shorter early season races in France. With his big goal in the Spring the Ardennes Classics, it’s unclear whether he will go all out here, but alongside Porte, he gives Sky another option for GC.
You’d expect Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler to go on the attack at some point here, but continued knee problems mean he’s only an outside chance for maintaining form throughout the week for a high place on GC.
Instead, FDJ’s Alex Geniez and AG2R’s Jean-Christophe Peraud are among those likely to spearhead the home challenge, whil RadioShack-Leopard’s Tony Gallopin’s all-round abilities could see him pick up bonus seconds on flatter stages to boost his chances.
Others worth considering for the GC include Cannondale’s Ivan Basso, Movistar’s Tour de Suisse champion Rui Costa and team mate Nairo Quintana, seventh overall in last month’s Ruta del Sol and a stage winner in last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
Also potentially in the mix are the Katusha pair of Simon Špilak and Denis Menchov, plus some riders looking to move their careers on at new teams – Saxo Bank’s Nicolas Roche, Jakob Fuglasang, now with Astana, and IAM’s Thomas Lovkvist among others.
Most of the big names may be missing, but there’s still enough quality in the field to make it an intriguing race. Away from the GC, riders such as FDJ’s French champion Nacer Bouhanni, a former wearer of that tricouleur jersey, Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, team mate Tom Boonen, Argos Shimano’s Marcel Kittel, world champion Philippe Gilbert and the Orica GreenEdge pair of Michael Albasini and Simon Gerrans will all be looking to make a mark too.
Prologue: Houilles / Houilles (2.9km)
Sun 3 March
The prologue is flat and short, but twisty; there's seven or eight tight bends to rob the riders of speed, so those that can handle their bikes awell, and get up to speed again in a hurry, should do well on the streets of Houilles. With two flat stages to come the winner might even stay in the yellow jersey for a couple of days, although with time bonuses available on intermediate sprints and the finish line on all stages it's easier for the jersey to change hands on the flat days.
Stage 1: Saint-Germain-en-Laye / Nemours (195km)
Mon 4 March
There's nothing in the profile to trouble any of the sprinters here – At 107m high and 500m in length the Cote de Buthiers is hardly an Alp – so assuming that a break doesn't stay out this one's lined up for a big bunch sprint. The race vists Nemours before heading out on a 47km final loop and returning for the finish. Riders within a few seconds of the overall lead might be tempted to hoover up some time bonuses at the intermediate sprints in an attempt to snatch the yellow.
Stage 2: Vimory / Cérilly (200.5km)
Tuesday 5 March
Another flat one with a circuit finish, running due South to Cérilly before heading out for an 18km final loop before the finish. The sprint – which it presumably will come to – is uphill; hardly a summit finish but the road climbs 28m in the last kilometre which could be enough to make a difference on the run-in.
Stage 3: Châtel-Guyon / Brioude (170.5km)
Weds 6 March
Three categorised climbs and a lumpy parcours isn't enough for the big guns to get stuck into, but it's the kind of stage where a break could stick. The category 2 Cote do Mauvagnat is 2.7km long at an average of 6.7%, long enough for an attack from the bunch if things are still together and with only 15km from the top of the climb to the finish there's a possibility that someone could go solo; more likely is a frantic pace at the front which drops the true sprinters setting the stage up for a dash to the line from a smaller group.
Stage 4: Brioude / Saint-Vallier (199.5km)
Thurs 7 March
This one's got break written all over it. With the big hills still to come the big guns will probably be happy to mark each other, and there'll be big enough time gaps by now for a group to go out and stay out, assuming that there's no-one too tasty in it. Seven categorised climbs, four of which are cat 2, mean it'll be a punishing day to be off the front but could be worth it. If things are still together at the final climb then the Côte de la Sizeranne, 2.9km at 6.6%, is long enough to be the launch pad for an attack, and it's only 8km to the finish from the top.
Stage 5: Châteauneuf-du-Pape / La Montagne de Lure (176km)
Fri 8 March
The queen stage of this year's race finishes a mile up on the Montagne de Lure. Let's have a quick look at the profile:
Pretty much the definition of 'steady' then, so maybe not one for those with an attacking style. It's more the kind of climb where a strong team will force the pace for their lead rider, trying to distance as many opponents as possible. It's unlikely to open out massive time gaps between the main contenders though, and the pure climbers will need some advantage ahead of Sunday's time trial.
Stage 6: Manosque / Nice (220km)
Sat 9 March
The sea will be a welcome sight for tired legs but there's plenty of riding to do on stage 6 before the peloton arrive there. The double hit of the Cote de Carbis and the Col du Ferrier is sure to fragment the race, although there's more than 70km for things to get back together again before the finish; it's likely that there'll be some kind of bunch to contest the sprint, although it won't be sprinters...
Stage 7: Nice / Col d'Éze (9.6km)
Sun 10 March
500m of climbing in just under 10km isn't enough for this to be one just for the pure climbers; last year's race saw some strong TTers make it into the top 20. Obviously if you can do both, like Wiggo, it's a perfect finish and one that he measured just right to win the overall in 2012. With a minute and a half separating first and 20th places on the col last year, there's still scope for the GC to change right up to the final few metres of the race.
Dave is a founding father of road.cc and responsible for kicking the server when it breaks. In a previous life he was a graphic designer but he's also a three-time Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling world champion, and remains unbeaten through the bog. Dave rides all sorts of bikes but tends to prefer metal ones. He's getting old is why.