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Paris-Nice 2017 preview: six riders to watch

Preparations for the summer ramp up at 75th "Race to the Sun"

Some of the UCI WorldTour’s leading GC contenders will look to bag some early-season bragging rights as Paris-Nice rolls out on Sunday (March 5).

Coupled with Tirreno-Adriatico, which starts three days later on Wednesday (March 8), the two races see the season’s stage racing ramp up to the next level with most of the leading GC contenders split between France and Italy for the next week or so.

Geraint Thomas won last year’s Paris-Nice, but does not return to defend his crown this year (pic: Sirotti)

Richie Porte (BMC Racing), fresh from his Tour Down Under triumph, leads the Paris-Nice contenders, racing on European roads for the first time this season as he bids for a third overall win in the “Race to the Sun”.

Team Sky’s defending champion Geraint Thomas does not race, but there is still a stellar list of challengers for Porte to contend with, including Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Great Britain’s Simon Yates (Orica-Scott).

– Paris-Nice 2017: TV schedule – 

And with three sprint stages to open this year’s race – there’s no prologue this time out – in-form Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors), German champion Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) lead the sprinting contenders.

In short, there’s plenty to look forward to at the eight-stage race, which rolls out of Bois-d’Arcy – on the outskirts of Paris – on Sunday.

We’ve picked out some of the key riders and battles…

Richie Porte: three is the magic number?

Richie Porte won at Paris-Nice in 2013 and 2015 with Team Sky, and was third in last year’s race having switched to BMC Racing in the winter.

The Australian sealed both victories with success on the mountain time trial on the Col d’Eze, but this year’s route is similar in style to that used last year, concluding with three road stages.

Richie Porte has started the year in winning style, but Paris-Nice is a different beats compared to the Tour Down Under (pic – Sirotti)

Nevertheless, Porte is a man in form – the 32-year-old triumphed on both hilly finishes at the Santos Tour Down Under as he stormed to a comprehensive overall victory.

That win, and the manner of it, means Porte is well clear at the top of the UCI WorldTour rankings, and now has another chance to prove his worth as team leader to BMC Racing.

The one time trial in this year’s race, a 14.5km course for stage four with a tough climb of Mont Brouilly to finish, could be his chance to eke out a few seconds before the race concludes with three mountain stages.

Victory at the Santos Tour Down Under was one thing, but if Porte wants to be viewed as a serious Tour de France contender, those final three stages are his chance to make a big statement.

Alberto Contador: fine margins

Another two-time Paris-Nice winner on this year’s startline but, unlike Porte, you have to go back seven years to find Alberto Contador’s last victory (2010).

The Spaniard was, however, second in last year’s race – just four seconds behind Geraint Thomas overall – as part of a stunning start to the season which saw him shelve his retirement plans.

Alberto Contador is still looking for his first win in Trek-Segafredo colours, after finishing just one second behind Alejandro Valverde at the Ruta del Sol (pic – ANSA/RCS Sport)

This time out he arrives with new team-mates, and the 34-year-old will be keen to record his first win for Trek-Segafredo and add to his five career stage wins at the Race to the Sun.

He was desperately close to grabbing that first win at the Ruta del Sol, missing out by just one second overall to Alejandro Valverde, and with his fellow Spaniard among the other contenders for the yellow jersey at Paris-Nice, revenge is at stake.

Alejandro Valverde: the man for all seasons

Alejandro Valverde turns 37 next month, but his year-round domination of the racing calendar is showing little signs of abating.

The Movistar man bagged his first win of the season in Murcia, before a stage win and overall success at the Ruta del Sol proved his form.

Alejandro Valverde has proved himself to be a man for all seasons, but has never won Paris-Nice (Pic: Sirotti)

He now arrives at Paris-Nice, out to add a rare missing piece to his palmares, having never won Paris-Nice.

In fact, you have to go back five years for his last appearance at the Race to the Sun, but Valverde was third on that occasion and picked up a stage win.

The race will serve more as part of his warm-up for the Ardennes Classics, but Valverde has repeatedly proved his ability to win race at all times of the year.

It will be interesting to see how his climbing stacks up against the likes of Contador and Porte too, with stage seven’s Col de la Couillole summit finish a key battleground.

Realistically, Valverde is more likely to take a back seat at the Tour de France in the summer, as team-mate Nairo Quintana bids for the second part of his planned Giro-Tour double assault.

Victory at Paris-Nice, however, would be a timely reminder that Valverde, too, is still capable of competing in the biggest stage races.

Simon Yates: no looking back

Orica-Scott have revealed British twins Adam and Simon Yates will miss the Tour de France this year, instead targeting the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

Their race programme temporarily splits at the start of this month, however, leaving Simon to lead the Orica-Scott charge at Paris-Nice.

Simon Yates celebrates his stage win at last year’s Vuelta a Espana (pic: Sirotti)

It means a return to the race at which the now 24-year-old finished seventh overall 12 months ago thanks to a strong end to the week in the mountains.

Little did he know, however, an administrative error by Orica-GreenEDGE’s medical team during the race – failing to apply for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for his asthma inhaler – would result in a four-month ban for Yates, which cost him his place at the Tour de France.

He bounced back, ultimately going on to win a stage of the Vuelta a Espana on his way to sixth place overall, but you would understand if he feels he has a point to prove at Paris-Nice.

Yates’ career, that ban aside, has been a story of steady upward progression ever since he turned pro with the Australian team back in 2014.

A podium place at a major stage race would be the perfect chance to banish last year’s memories and also tick off another milestone in his rise to the top.

Marcel Kittel: unstoppable?

While the GC battle will occupy the final few days of this year’s race – and ultimately it will be the yellow jersey remembered in years to come – the first three stages are about the sprinters.

And first among the fast men tempted to Paris-Nice is in-form Marcel Kittel, who will be out to add to the four stage wins he picked up in the desert to kick-off the season.

Marcel Kittel has won four bunch sprints already this season (pic – Matteo Bazzi/Ansa/RCS Sport)

QuickStep Floors have already clocked 13 wins this season, and Kittel has certainly looked an unstoppable force when his sprint clicks – his victory, from way back, on stage two of the Abu Dhabi Tour, showed a man in top form.

His chief rivals in that race, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) will not be at Paris-Nice, but there’s still plenty of competition, including former team-mate John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), German champion Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and mercurial Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis).

Kittel is the man to beat, however, and on current form that’s going to take some doing.

Romain Bardet: local knowledge

This year’s Paris-Nice features a summit finish on the Col de la Couillole on stage seven, a never-before-used climb in the race, and the highest point the race has ever climbed.

Following on immediately from the Col Saint-Martin, it’s a demanding 15.7km, with a consistent average gradient of 7.1 per cent – and it represents a big challenge for the climbers at a time of the year when they are traditionally still finding their climbing legs.

The little-known Col de la Couillole is a new addition to this year’s race ans has been described as an exceptionally tough early-season test (pic – Jpmgir, via Wiki Commons)

It’s a point not lost on home favourite Romain Bardet, with the Frenchman having recce’d the climb in training prior to heading out the Middle East last month.

“The course is difficult,” Bardet says, “with the Col de la Couillole…a very hard climb to race in the month of March.”

There will be plenty of climbers who have not got to grips with the climb before Saturday’s penultimate stage, and if the climber’s legs aren’t there, we could see plenty popping.

Advantage Bardet? It remains to be seen, but if the Frenchman does get a result here expect the French press – desperate for a home winner at the Tour de France – to go into hyperbole overload between now and July.

Paris-Nice 2017: stages

Sunday March 5 – stage one: Bois d’Arcy to Bois d’Arcy, 148.5km

Monday March 6 – stage two: Rochefort-en-Yvelines to Amilly, 195km

Tuesday March 7 – stage three: Chablis to Chalon-sur-Saone, 190km

Wednesday March 8 – stage four: Beujeu to Mont Brouilly, 14.5km individual time trial

Thursday March 9 – stage five: Quincie-en-Beaujolais to Bourg-de-Peage, 199.5km

Friday March 10 – stage six: Aubagne to Fayence, 193.5km

Saturday March 11 – stage seven: Nice to Col de la Couillole, 177km summit finish

Sunday March 12 – stage eight: Nice to Nice, 115.5km

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