The UCI WorldTour returns for the week-long Paris-Nice stage race on Sunday after a break of more than one month.
Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 edition of the race, kicking off a remarkable winning run which saw the Team Sky leader triumph at the Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de France, before winning Olympic time trial gold in London. Wiggins will not defend his title, however, and will instead race the Volta a Catalunya on March 18-24.
In fact, Wiggins is a number of riders conspicuous in their absence, with Chris Froome (Team Sky), Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Tinkoff), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) all set to line-up at Tirreno-Adriatico on March 6-12 having previously gone head-to-head at the Tour of Oman in February.
La Course au Soleil, or the Race to the Sun, is not completely without its big hitters, though, and the start list is competitive if not star-studded.
Richie Porte will lead Team Sky in the absence of Wiggins and Froome, with Ivan Basso (Cannondale Pro Cycling), Robert Gesink (Blanco Pr0 Cycling), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Jacob Fuglsang (Astana), Andreas Kloden (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek), Dennis Menchov (Katusha) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) also set to line-up in the Parisian suburb of Houilles on Sunday with ambitions of overall victory.
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) will continue his Classics preparations at Paris-Nice while world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) will also be in contention on the race's sprint and rolling stages with the likes of Borut Bozic (SaxoBank-Tinkoff), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Paris-Nice, while a weighty addition to any rider's palmares, is historically an early-season test of form for the season's Grand Tour contenders, emerging from their winter hibernation and building towards the Giro in May and Tour in July.
And the course reflects the attributes required to win a three-week stage race, with a varied parcours which is bookended by two individual tests against the clock.
The race starts with a 2.9km prologue in Houilles, west of Paris, followed by two flat stages from Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Nemours (195km) and from Vimory to Cerilly (200.5km) which should see the peloton's fast men come to the fore.
Stage three, which follows a 170.5 km route from Chatel-Guyon to Brioude, is also likely to come down to a sprint but from a reduced group thanks to the category two climb which reaches its peak of 733m just 15km from the finish, perhaps giving us a clue as to form ahead of Milan-San Remo on March 17. Stage four, meanwhile, includes seven categorised climbs on the 199.5km ride from Brioude to Saint-Vallier - one for the peloton's breakaway artists.
Any remaining pleasantries will be cast aside on stage five, which ends with the highest summit finish in the history of the race. The 176km stage starts from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and goes over five minor climbs before the peloton arrives at the foot of La Montagne de Lure. The climb rises to 1,600m in 13.8km at a average gradient of 6.6 per cent.
The following day's stage is the longest of the race at 220km, leaving Manosque and arriving on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice via five climbs, including two back-to-back category one ascents. Both, however, come with more than 70km to run until the finish.
That just leaves the final time trial up the Col d’Eze, which has featured regularly in the race since 1969. The 9.6km climb rises at a steady average gradient of 4.7 per cent, providing the opportunity to make-up time, or extend an advantage. Bradley Wiggins did just that in 2012, winning the final stage by two seconds from Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) to extend his overall advantage over the Dutchman to eight seconds.
Eurosport will broadcast live coverage of each stage plus an evening highlights package:
Sunday March 3
1430-1600 - LIVE prologue on British Eurosport 2 HD
2015-2115 - prologue highlights on British Eurosport 2 HD
Monday March 4
1345-1515 - LIVE stage one on British Eurosport HD
1945-2045 - Stage one highlights on British Eurosport HD
Tuesday March 5
1345-1515 - LIVE stage two on British Eurosport HD
1945-2045 - Stage two highlights on British Eurosport HD
Wednesday March 6
1345-1515 - LIVE stage three on British Eurosport HD
1945-2045 - stage three highlights on British Eurosport HD
Thursday March 7
1400-1515 - LIVE stage four on British Eurosport 2 HD
2100-2200 - Stage four highlights on British Eurosport 2 HD
Friday March 8
1415-1515 - LIVE stage five on British Eurosport HD
1900-2000 – Stage five highlights on British Eurosport HD
Saturday March 9
1415-1600 - LIVE stage six on British Eurosport 2 HD
1900-2000 - stage six highlights on British Eurosport HD
Sunday March 10
1415-1600 - LIVE stage seven on British Eurosport 2 HD
2030-2130 - stage seven highlights on British Eurosport HD