Paris-Nice 2016: preview

The route, contenders and riders to watch as WorldTour racing resumes in France

UCI WorldTour action resumes this weekend, with Paris-Nice the first top-level European race of the season, rolling out on Sunday March 6.

Simon Gerrans made a winning start to the season at the Tour Down Under, and the second WorldTour race of the season will pit some more of the biggest names together as they look to build form ahead of the Grand Tours.

Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas starred at Paris-Nice in 2015 (pic: Serge Waldbillig/Sirotti)

Richie Porte (BMC Racing) rolls out as defending champion, having sealed a second win in three years for Team Sky last year.

The man who played a starring role in helping Porte to the top of the podium, Geraint Thomas, leads Team Sky following the Aussie’s departure and both will face stiff competition from another two-time former winner, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).

So what can we expect from France next week? We’ve taken a closer look at the route and the men to look out for.

The route

As ever, organisers ASO have tinkered with the route – with the course unrecognisable compared to last year.

The final stage time trial on Col d’Eze – where Porte sealed his victories in 2013 and 2015 – is once again gone, with the route favouring out-and-out climbers instead.

A punchy route awaits, with less than 7km of time trialling (pic: ASO)

And there is no shortage of climbs for the best in the world to test their legs, including a summit finish on La Madone and a visit to the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux up to Chalet Reynard.

Col d’Eze does feature, but as part of the route to Nice on the final stage – one of two category-one ascents on stage seven, Cote de Peille being the other.

A 6.1km prologue kicks off proceedings – the only fight against the clock this time out – and there are opportunities to sprinters too, with stages one, two and four largely flat.

The punchy stage three, with an uphill finish on Mont Brouilly, gives the puncheurs chance to shine, before the aforementioned Provence visit on stage five.

Chalet Reynard, at 1440m, will be the highest point the race reaches, with adverse weather a possibility before a punchy run-in to the Salon-de-Provence finish line.

The undulating stage six finishes atop La Madone (pic: ASO)

Stage six, meanwhile, features seven climbs in all – finishing atop La Madone d’Utelle (15.3km at 5.7% average gradient).

And the winner will be crowned in Nice on Sunday March 13, with the Col d’Eze and subsequent descent towards Nice the final opportunity to strike home an advantage.

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)

Alberto Contador may not have fully committed to retirement at the end of this year, yet, but it is highly likely this is his final Paris-Nice.

Winner in 2007 and 2010, Contador has preferred Tirreno-Adriatico in recent years but starts Paris-Nice among the favourites for victory.

Contador was in superb form at the start of 2015, and has already won once this season (pic: Sirotti)

El Pistolero has already made a strong start to the year, with victory on the Alto do Malhao earning him third place overall at the Volta ao Algarve.

After burning out at the Tour de France, in pursuit of the Giro-Tour double (though he did still finish fifth), it is easy to forget just how well Contador rode at the Giro d’Italia last year and if he can recapture that form he will right back among the favourites for this year’s Tour.

Tinkoff boast a two-pronged attack for the race too, with Rafal Majka also among the contenders – as Thomas and Porte showed last year, strength in numbers is usually valuable for these sort of races.

Richie Porte (BMC Racing)

Defending champion Richie Porte returns to Paris-Nice having already enjoyed WorldTour success with a stage win and second place overall at the Tour Down Under.

In between, however, he was off the pace at the Tour of Oman – later attributed to piriformis syndrome – and will have some catching up to do in France.

Richie Porte won on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under for the third consecutive year (pic: Sirotti)

Porte started last season in scintillating form – as did Team Sky as a whole – but his switch to BMC Racing means this is a whole new test for him.

Week-long stage races are where Porte has shone before though, and if he can prove he is over his troubles from Oman you can’t count him out.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)

Geraint Thomas has enjoyed Paris-Nice in recent years – well set for at least a podium place in 2014 before crashing out, and performing a first-class supporting role for Porte last time out.

Now the Welshman will ride for himself, with no eye on the Classics either – and with victory at the Volta ao Algarve already under his belt he is the man in form too.

Geraint Thomas won the Volta ao Algarve for the second consecutive year (pic: Sirotti)

Thomas impressed on Mount Bruilly in 2014, and could put himself in a similar position to the Algarve where Contador and Ion Izagirre were forced to play catch-up – to no avail.

Sky boast strength in depth too, with Segio Henao well-suited to the rolling parcours and Ian Boswell, Nicolas Roche and Mikel Nieve also in the eight-man line-up.

Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida)

Another rider to have enjoyed Paris-Nice, without topping the podium, in recent years is Rui Costa.

Consecutive second-placed finishes, in the rainbow jersey, was enough to finish second overall in 2014 and Costa was fourth last time out – a single second faster on the final stage and he would have been second again.

Rui Costa has showed well at the Paris-Nice in the last two years (pic: Sirotti)

The Portuguese rider has made a steady start to 2016 too, finishing fifth on Green Mountain in Oman to finish in the same position overall.

Costa may have failed to find success in the Grand Tours, but as far as the biggest week-long stage races are concerned he does have pedigree (three Tour de Suisse victories, and last year’s Criterium du Dauphine podium place adding to his Paris-Nice achievements).

Should he fail to shine, however, Lampre-Merida do have more options – not least Louis Meintjes, the 24-year-old South African having finished tenth at last year’s Vuelta a Espana with MTN-Qhubeka.

Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale)

With no long time trial, Romain Bardet will fancy his chances – though he will still likely have to make up time after the 6.8km prologue.

The Frenchman, 25, was second at the Tour of Oman, finishing just 15 seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali, to prove his climbing form is there and the last stage also looks well-suited to him.

Romain Bardet could shine on the twisting descent on stage seven (pic: Sirotti)

His fearless ride on the twisting descent to Pra-Loup at the Criterium du Dauphine showed he can descend with the best, and if he can pair that with his strong climbing form – and avoid any troubles on the flat stages – he looks good for at least a podium place.

Ion Izagirre (Movistar)

With a squad blessed with talent, it’s easy for some of Movistar’s fringe contenders to go unnoticed compared as Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana lead the way.

But Ion Izagirre is one rider who could change that, especially if he keeps up the form he has shown in the early part of the 2016 season.

Ion Izagirre won his first stage race in 2015, and has the chance to add to that after a strong start to 2016 (pic: Sirotti)

Fourth at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (won by Team Sky’s Wout Poels) and then runner-up to Thomas in the Algarve, Izagirre is certainly a man to watch.

He won his first WorldTour stage race in 2015, the Tour of Poland, and Paris-Nice offers a chance to prove he should be considered among the contenders for the week-long races.

Then again, the form book counts for nothing this early in the season, with riders timing their peak form – Izagirre’s impressed so far, but has a job on to keep that up.

Others to watch

With form a relative unknown this early in the season, Paris-Nice could be the race for a rider to shoot into form – much as Andrew Talansky (Cannondale) did in 2013.

He and new team-mate Pierre Rolland lead a strong two-pronged attack for the team in green, who are desperate to enjoy some big successes after a lean 2015 season.

Andrew Talansky has much to prove (pic: Sirotti)

Elsewhere, former winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) is expected on the start line but crashed out of the time trial at the Volta ao Algarve on his last outing while in the leader’s jersey.

Nevertheless, a stage win the day before the crash and a second place overall in Valencia are encouraging signs early in the season.

Then there comes Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), who could be on the brink of a big year after his outstanding Vuelta a Espana.

The lack of a meaningful time trial counts against the Dutchman, but if he wants to prove himself as a serious stage race contender this is a great opportunity.

It’s not just about the GC men either, with several heavyweight sprinters preparing to do battle on the three flatter stages.

Marcel Kittel has made a winning start to life with Etixx-QuickStep (pic: Tim de Waele/EQS)

Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) has made a winning start to life with his new team, picking up two stage wins apiece at the Dubai Tour and Volta ao Algarve – winning overall at the former.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) has also enjoyed a success-laden start to the season, with three sprint wins in Qatar and another two in Oman.

Battling against those two will be Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), a two-time winner in Mallorca in January, and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who has won twice at Paris-Nice before.

Brits on tour

Geraint Thomas is not the only Brit worth keeping an eye on, meanwhile, with Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) also a possible contender.

The Australian team have been keen to keep the pressure off the two Yates twins, but with top-ten finishes at the Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and Tour of the Basque Country last season, expectations of 23-year-old Simon are rising.

Simon Yates had a great 2015, and expectations have risen (pic: Sirotti)

Alex Dowsett (Movistar) has had his racing calendar changed and so misses out, but four further Brits will take the startline too, including three from Team Sky.

Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard line up in black and blue, while Dan McLay is part of the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.

UCI WorldTour 2016: race calendar


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