Paris-Nice Preview - Team Sky's Geraint Thomas runs through The Race to the Sun

Vintage is en vogue as race celebrates its 70th edition, including the return of the Col d'Eze Time Trial

Paris-Nice, ‘The Race to the Sun,’ marks a change in gear as the cycling season heads into March. While there’s no shortage of season-opening stage races these days, the arrival of one with real heritage – this is the 70th edition – causes a ripple of excitement among fans and riders alike. Among those racing is Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, switching back to the road from the track, who gives his thoughts on the race in general plus Fantasy Cycling tips on each stage below.

There’s certainly a retro feel to the race this year, with the 2012 edition finishing on the Col d’Eze, where the race previously finished every year from 1969 to 1995. The last time an individual time trial featured here was in the penultimate stage in 2001, won by Italian rider Dario Frigo of Fassa Bortolo to set himself up for the overall victory the following day.

There’s a retro touch with this year’s leader’s jersey, too, with a vintage, shirt-style collar and the garment being made by Le Coq Sportif, which had supplied the race until 1977. The yellow colour – introduced in 2008 by Tour de France owners ASO, which bought the race from the late Laurent Fignon in 2002 – remains, however.

The opening stage, too, harks back to yesteryear, taking place in the same Chevreuse Valley that once hosted the Grand Prix des Nations, which for some six decades was viewed as the unofficial world time trial championship until the UCI formally established the event in the 1990s.

There’s no shortage of potential Tour de France winners on show this year, although for some of the men who will hope to be challenging to win that race come July, Paris-Nice is more about getting some decent racing miles in rather than making a serious challenge for the overall.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the roll of winners of Paris-Nice features just three who have also won the Tour de France – Miguel Indurain, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador. By coincidence, Landis in 2006 and Contador (who also won in 2010) would follow victory in Paris-Nice by winning that year’s Tour, only to be subsequently stripped of that title.

Certainly since Sean Kelly’s domination in the 1980s – the Irishman won the race an unequalled seven times in a row from 1983 to 1988, while compatriot Stephen Roche had triumphed in the previous two editions – strong, attacking riders have featured regularly in the list of winners.

Those include three time winner Laurent Jalabert and twice victorious Alexander Vinokourov, as well as 2009 winner and 2010 runner-up, Luis Leon Sanchez. The Spaniard is back again this year, as is defending champion Tony Martin, who used the Stage 6 individual time trial as the springboard for his victory 12 months ago.

Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas helped Bradley Wiggins achieve third place overall behind the German last season, and has identified the stages he believes will prove pivotal this year. “The stage into Mende and the final time trial look like being the main GC days,” he told road.cc.

“There’s a good start list, it’s a strong field, there always is in Paris-Nice,” he added.

You can find the provisional start list here – don’t forget to keep checking back in case of riders withdrawing, as Europcar’s Pierre Rolland has already had to do through knee injury. We'll be updating the riders on Fatasy Cycling too once the final start list has been published ahead of Sunday's opening stage.

What of Geraint himself? The Welshman started the year on the road at the Tour Down Under but missed a planned ride at the Giro di Sardegna when that race was cancelled. His most recent competitive ride, of course, was on the track in the London World Cup.

“It feels like I haven’t raced in ages,” he laughs. “I just can’t wait to get out there and race, it could be a bit of a shock to the system maybe, the first day or so, but I’ve done a bit of work on the road this last week and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.”

Talking of his own team, he said: “Algarve showed that Sky have got a really strong team at the moment, Richie Porte’s riding, plus Brad Wiggins so you’ve got two really good cards to play there. From recent results they seem to be going well.”

Coincidentally, Wiggins and Porte, the latter then with Saxo Bank, were the riders who finished second and third respectively to Martin during that decisive individual time trial last year.

Unlike those teams that have brought sprinters to Paris-Nice, the likes of Mark Cavendish, racing in Tirreno-Adriatico, Ben Swift, Edvald Boasson Hagen and CJ Sutton are all missing, meaning that the focus for the British outfit at Paris-Nice will be on the riders who eventually figure in its GC, rather than green jersey, plans in the Tour de France come July.

“We’re just looking to get there and race really hard and see if we can do something on GC and maybe pick up a stage on one of the harder days,” explains Geraint. “There’s really only one flat finish, the other days are hard finishes, so the team will have looked at that and decided not to take an out-and-out sprinter.

“So it’s all about the GC and keeping the core of the Tour de France team together, or at least the GC side of it,” he added.

Stage 1 Sunday 4 March
Dampierre-en-Yvelines – Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse 9.4km (ITT)

A few kilometres to the southwest of Paris, this area is as much a draw to cyclists in the French capital as the Surrey Hills are to many of those in London. Back in the days when it hosted the Grand Prix des Nations, for more than half a century regarded as the unofficial world time trial championship, the parcours could stretch up to 140km.

At less than 10km, today’s route is shorter but those with GC ambitions will have to ride hard from the ramp, with a Category 3 climb to be tackled inside the opening 2km; it won’t be the toughest ascent of the race, but it is one where precious seconds can be won or lost.

GT: Taylor Phinney raced in Qatar and Oman and he was out in Belgium last weekend too, so he’s got plenty of racing in him and I’m sure will be coming on nicely, so he’s one to watch. I doubt the main GC guys will have done too much intensity.

Someone like Brad will be strong but I don’t think he’ll have that real punch. I don’t think he’ll be too worried about the prologue, he’ll be thinking more about the end of the week. I’ll have a good go, but a bit of racing would have definitely helped with that endurance and fitness that only racing can bring you.

Stage 2 Monday 5 March
Mantes-la-Jolie – Orléans 185km

This is the one stage of this year’s race that appears nailed-on to finish in a bunch sprint. Having said that, reams looking to set up their fast men for the finale will have to be on their guard if the wind gets up on the Beauce plain that today’s parcours crosses on its way to the finish in the Loire Valley, the fifth time that Orléans has been a Paris-Nice stage town.

Geraint: A lot of the main sprinters tend to ride Tirreno-Adriatico so they won’t be here, but Tom Boonen is and obviously he has had a good few wins already.

He’s showing some good form, he looked super-strong in Qatar, so he’ll probably be looking to make the most of today. Haussler and Hushovd are here too, but I’d probably put my money on Boonen just because he’s had more racing and seems to be up there right now.

Stage 3 Tuesday 6 March
Vierzon – Le Lac de Vassivière 194km

Today’s stage features a Category 3 summit finish that has previously featured three times on the Tour de France and is also regularly visited by the Tour du Limousin.

With a height gain of just 100 metres inside the final four kilometres, though, it’s definitely one where the stronger sprinters can expect to be around to contest the finale, although a steeper section leading up to that could prove to be a useful launching ground for solo attacks.

GT: I think it’s a tricky one today. The sprinters you’d have thought would be able to get up the final climb, but then you have people like Alejandro Valverde and Simon Gerrans, so it could be one of those sprints where there’s a few different kinds of guys around.

I don’t think it’s too hard the rest of the day, so the sprinters could still be fresh, the climb won’t be overly steep, so they’ll still be there but it just depends how the race has gone to that point and whether they’ve still got the gas. It could be a tough one. Even Allan Davies, if he’s going like we know he can, or Boonen or Haussler – all those guys will be there or thereabouts. 

Stage 4 Wednesday 7 March
Brive-la-Gaillarde – Rodez  183km

Situated in the Aveyron, Rodez hosted a Tour de France stage finish for the first time in 1984, and the start of one during the 2010 Tour, but this is its first appearance in Paris-Nice.

The Category 3 Cote de Bourran, short but with an average gradient of 8 per cent, is crested 2km out and immediately after heading under the flamme rouge, the road kicks up again in the final kilometre.

GT: Riders like Gerrans and Valverde will probably have more of a chance on this stage, it’s a further day of climbing and it’s a bit lumpier during the day, so it may tire out the pure sprinters a bit more.

With about 2k to go there’s quite a steep little section, so the sprinters would really have to go deep there, if Movistar are really driving it, it could put them on the back foot. It should be a great finish to watch, and it could be an opportunist move, especially if some of the GC teams don’t want to ride, so a lot could happen.

Stage 5 Thursday 8 March
Onet-le-Château – Mende  178km 

Today’s stage finishes on the Cote de la Croix-Neuve, also known as the Montée Laurent Jalabert in tribute to the Frenchman’s storming Bastille Day victory here during the 1995 Tour de France.

Seen as potentially the decisive stage of this year’s Paris-Nice, that final climb is only 3km long, but an average gradient of 10 per cent is enough to earn it Category 1 status, and the peloton will have tackled two other similarly rated climbs earlier in the day.

GT: This is one of the GC days, so the main guys going for that will just be waiting for that final climb. I think the 1st Cat climb is a little too far out to make much of a difference.

So it will be one of those days where a breakaway goes and the main bunch just gets quicker and quicker and you look to get into a good position at the bottom of that climb for the GC guys to race and see who’s got it. Maybe Matt Lloyd, the way he was going in the Aussie Nationals and the Tour Down Under, he looked super lean and motivated.

Stage 6 Friday 9 March
Suze-la-Rousse – Sisteron  176.5km

Today’s parcours is sprinkled with Category 3 climbs as well as a Cat 2 relatively early on, with views of Mont Ventoux reminding the riders that it could have been a lot tougher.

On the closing loop out from Sisteron and back again, there is an opportunity for attacks to be launched on the Col des Marquises, although it may be tough to make one stick as the sprinters’ teams look to pull the race back together for the finale.

GT: I’m sure the sprinters will be up for it today, it’s their last chance to do anything in the race, so again people like Boonen or Haussler, or perhaps even someone from a team that hasn’t done much up till now.

Stage 7 Saturday 10 March
Sisteron – Nice 220km

In recent years, the final stage of Paris-Nice has ended on the Promenade des Anglais, but the reinstatement of the Col d’Eze time trial tomorrow after an absence of ten years means the race won’t be decided just yet.

The early part of the stage follows the Route Napoléon, with the Category 1 Col du Vence crested more than 50km from the finish, during the course of which riders will descent from 963 metres to sea level – an average of less than 20 metres per kilometre – making it a very different proposition than the sharp drop shown on the profile suggests.

GT: I think 50k is a long way out and it won’t be a proper descent for that distance anyway, so rather than a good descender staying away it could be a day for a breakaway – one full of Frenchmen. There should be some time gaps by then.

Obviously with the TT the next day, I can’t see any of the GC guys being too bothered about trying anything on that 1st Cat climb with so long to the finish, 50k is a long way on your own with the peloton chasing behind.

Stage 8 Sunday 11 March
Nice – Col d'Èze  9.6km (ITT)

Whoever wins the time trial today will join some illustrious company - Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk, Stephen Roche, and Sean Kelly are among those to have gone quickest against the clock here in a stage that is emblematic of Paris-Nice but has been missing for a decade.

The overall title, of course, will also be decided today, and a shake-up of the GC is entirely possible, with opportunities for stronger specialists to make some gains, while others will struggle to limit their losses.

In good conditions in 2001, Dario Frigo, who later that year would be handed a six-month ban for having attempted to obtain doping products, averaged a little over 30kph to win the stage. It will be interesting to see how today’s riders compare.

GT: It will suit someone like Brad, it’s not majorly steep either, the steepest part is about 8 per cent, so it’s more his kind of climb rather than a pure climber’s one. So I’d have thought he’d be up for that definitely, Tony Martin too can climb a bit when he’s going well, even Valverde, as well as the usual stronger climbers.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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