5 Riders to Watch: Paris – Nice

I am writing this preview in huge anticipation for Strade Bianche tonight (well for me it’s tonight), which finishes at a convenient time for me in Australia finally. A race that doesn’t finish at a convenient time for me in Australia is Paris-Nice. I am contemplating just changing my body clock to work in UTC instead of AWST and see if my uni lecturers can re-organise my classes to work around my timezone. However, enough about me, paris-Nice is a race steeped in tradition and this year’s 75th edition brings a lot of big names…minus 1. Alejandro Valverde being out with illness means that he isn’t coming to a race he has been on the podium at two times (3 times minus the doping) but never won. His loss is the gain of the other big contenders though, who will be revelling in the fact that he isn’t coming to quite possibly ruin the party. So, what is this year’s edition of this race looking like?

The Course

Stage 1: Bois-d’Arcy > Bois-d’Arcy (148.5km)

Yay for circuit races? I’m not really a huge fan of circuit races, especially when they seem as pointless as this stage, but either way, it’s the start of Paris-Nice so we should be happy. The 74km circuit of Bois d’Arcy is done 2 times (which in my mind is seemingly pointless but I don’t design these races for a living) and features a sprint point at Beynes 55km and 132.5km in and the Cat 3 Cote de Senlisse (1.1km at 5.5%) 19.5km and 99.5km in. Definitely a bunch sprint unless the completely unimaginable happens, and the best sprinters of the race look to be Kittel, Degenkolb, Coquard and Bouhanni, while Orica’s Magnus Cort might enjoy the slightly uphill sprint this stage brings and he will be trying to replicate his Spanish performances in France this year.

Pick for the Stage: Magnus Cort

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Welcome to European Stage Racing Season! Source: LeTour.

Stage 2: Rochefort-en-Yvelines > Amilly (195km)

Flatter than a babies bottom, this stage presents one Cat 3 climb at the Cote des Granges-le-Roi (1.5km at 3.1%) 10.5km in before a pancake flat stage otherwise. Echelons are quite the possibility as the riders head south towards Amilly, but because there is another completely pointless circuit at the end of the stage, the crosswinds won’t really have an effect on the result of the sprint. The run into Amilly is ‘downhill’, but that is like saying me jumping from the pavement into a swimming pool is a downhill, it’s very marginal. Again, another open sprint, but depending on the winds on the day, the big guys like Kittel and Cort might have some difficulty if their lead-out trains fail to provide protection (but Quickstep and Orica have the two best leadout trains in the peloton hands down, so this happening is very unlikely).

Pick for the Stage: Bryan Coquard

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I still think Cav would get dropped over that Cat 3 climb. Source: LeTour.

Stage 3: Chablis > Chalon-sur-Saône (190km)

While not a completely pancake flat stage with two KoMs up for grabs, Stage 3 into Chalon-sur-Saone brings another compensation stage for the sprinters heading into the next few days of tough racing. The Cote de Grandmont (2.4km at 4.9%) at 128km and Cote de Charrecey (2.1km at 6.7%) at 164.5km is the extent of the days climbing, and their low category status means the points will be absorbed by the break of the day. The riders heading South down into Chalon-Sur-Saone might have to face some tough winds again, but nothing major. Another bone flat sprint, but the roads into Chalon-Sur-Saone are downhill-ish, so expect some fast corners being taken and some risks for position.

Pick for the Stage: Marcel Kittel

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When do the hills start? Source: LeTour.

Stage 4: Beaujeu > Mont Brouilly (14.5km)

Last years edition of Paris-Nice saw the finish onto Mont Brouilly cancelled due to snow. Hardly a Race to the Sun. So, to compensate, the race organisers decided to make a time trial committed to the climb itself this year. Mont Brouilly has been used once before besides 2016 in the 2014 edition (Stage 5), but this is the first time a stage is finishing there. The 14.5km time trial is a pretty dead flat course, with no real technical turns (besides turning out of Regnie-Durette at around 6km with a hairpin corner) until the riders hit Saint-Lager and onwards to Mont-Brouilly. Heading up the climb, the riders will have to take a few hairpin bends up, but the gradient of the climb levels out near the end. The profile makes it seem quite flat, but the climb is 206m gained over 4.1km with a 5% average gradient, so it’s isn’t like a pancake at all. Climbing time triallers like Porte, Martin, Bardet and Izagirre will want to get a jump start on the GC race here over the pure climbers who will be limiting their losses.

Pick for the Stage: Tony Martin

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The prologue TT or final stage TT has been replaced by a mid race TT. Source: LeTour.

Stage 5: Quincié-en-Beaujolais > Bourg-de-Péage (199.5km)

Stage 5 entertains us with 2 more KoMs and 2 more sprint points which should really have much of an influence on GC. The Cote de Givors (4.3km at 4.2%) at 98km and Cote de Saint-Uze (2.7km at 6.5%) at 152.5km will again be hotly contested by those aiming for the Mountains Classification (which I think will be won by Winner Anacona after the loss of Valverde for a team leader), but again, no major impact on GC to be found (these less hilly stages are quite annoying). The finish into Bourg-de-Peage is uphill, so the bunch sprint should provide plenty of entertainment. Not as much entertainment as the next few days to come, but enough anyway.

Pick for the Stage: Bryan Coquard

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The lumps are starting. Source: LeTour.

Stage 6: Aubagne > Fayence (193.5km)

The first serious day of climbing is just a couple of days before the riders finish in Nice. But that is okay, at least it came eventually. The Fayence stage of Paris-Nice this year comes along with 6 different categorised climb, starting at kilometer 0 with the Col de l’Espigoulier (8.9km at 5.6%) and finishes with the final kilometer of the race in Fayence (1.3km at 9.8%). Between those two climbs is a very undulating course west towards Fayence, where the crosswinds off the ocean could quite possibly play a part before the riders loop around Fayence in what seems like a Strava segment hunting competition more than a race. The Cat 1 climbs of Col de Bourigaille twice (once for 5.5km at 6.1%, again for 8.1km at 5.9%) is a circuit I like to see, and because of their minimal distance between each other leaves riders minimal time to rest on the flats. This stage can go two ways: sprinters teams holding on for their lives to keep their sprinter in for a reduced bunch sprint, or a rider not holding any worries for the mountain top finish the day after and launching a big attack into Fayence. I am going to pick the former.

Pick for the Stage: Michael Matthews

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A punchy finish to a hilly stage. Source: LeTour.

Stage 7: Nice > Col de la Couillole (177km)

I guess the best descriptor for this stage is…Nice? The Queen Stage of this years Paris-Nice features 3 Category 1 climbs (how the final climb isn’t HC is beyond me) and is a sprinters nightmare from kilometer zero. The first climb comes no more than 10km into the stage with the Cote de Gattieres, while the Cat 1 Col de Vence is summited at 29.5km into the stage. From there, the road flattens out for 70km or so, until the race hits Utelle for the slow climb up the first major climb of the day – the Col Saint-Martin. The climb averages above 7% for 7.5km, with the climb progressively getting steeper. Teams like Sky, Trek, BMC and AG2R will be on the front trying to whittle down the pack before the final climb of the Col de la Couillole to finish the stage. Never before used in Paris-Nice, the 15.7km climb averages 7.1% the whole way up the climb and rarely drops below 7% for the whole climb. This is where the big attacks and GC battle will pose itself for the week, and it’s definitely one for the pure climbers while the sprinters will be chilling about 5 paces in front of the broom van waiting for the day after.

Pick for the Stage: Richie Porte

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The Queen Stage of Paris-Nice features a never-before-used climb in the Col de la Couillole. Source: LeTour.

Stage 8: Nice > Nice (115.5km)

Now this is a pretty nice stage too. Featuring 5 categorised climbs and 2 sprint points, any rider wishing to consolidate or snatch a points jersey in Nice will have ample opportunity to. 5 5km+ climbs throughout the day will wear the riders out before they hit Nice, with the famous Col d’Eze (7.7km at 5.7%) welcoming the riders to Nice 15km out from the finish. The other Cat 1 climb of the day, the Cote de Peille (6.5km at 6.9%) is also another tough slog in their race from Nice and back. There isn’t a flat section in the whole stage, with the riders descending into Nice before a slight kicker at the end. Personally, this is the stage I am looking forward to the most: there are bound to be attacks galore while riders try to take KoM and Sprint points and anyone who hasn’t gotten a stage win will be desperate for one in Nice.

Pick for the Stage: Nacer Bouhanni

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Not a single flat road in sight. Source: LeTour.

I’ve mentioned a few big names above here who are in contention for a stage win or two, but who are the 5 Riders you truly need to watch?

The Bookies Favourite: Richie Porte

The first race I’ve actually seen bookies odds for, and Richie Porte is currently sitting at 5/2 for the win in Nice, which considering his performances in previous years at Paris-Nice, those odds are certainly worth a punt on. He has won here in 2013 and 2015, and so by deducing the special ‘Porte Wins P-N Formula’, he is due another win here. It’s not superstition, he races better on odd years here than even years – 22nd in 2011, 1st in 2013 and 1st in 2015 compared to 68th in 2012 and 3rd in 2016. The slightly vertically-inclined time trial suits him very well, and Paris-Nice 2017 is lacking in mountain top finishes compared to previous editions, which doesn’t necessarily affect the Tasmanian triathlete as much as his pure climber rivals. With Valverde pulling out with a fever too, that is one less person to challenge Richie in France this week, but it’s not like Richie would beat them all anyway.

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Porte has won in Nice twice. In 2015, he won in the Australian National Champion jersey. Source: Graham Watson.

The Hometown Hero: Romain Bardet

With a surprising lack of Thibaut Pinot who is instead choosing Italy over his home country, the hopes of France in Paris-Nice fall onto one team. AG2R holds both French hopes of winning Paris-Nice, and their best chance lies in Romain Bardet. While the start of 2017 hasn’t been great for Bardet (with 12th up Jebel Hafeet and 10th up Jebel Akhdar), he will be only starting his preparation for the TDF around now and Paris-Nice is his first test and goal. Bardet has slowly been growing from year to year, and a good result at Paris-Nice this year will be a launchpad for a great 2017. His best result previously was 9th last year, but after his TDF performance last year, high hopes will be instilled in him to get the yellow in Nice.

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Romain Bardet will be hoping for more celebrations in 2017, targeting Paris-Nice and the TDF as his two big races of the year. Source: Christophe Ena.

The Youngster: Sam Oomen

I mentioned Sam Oomen during the Spinning Out podcast this week as being one of the next big GC talents. The 21 year old Dutch rider already has a great performance this year at Andulucia coming 15th, just 3 places behind his more experienced team leader Warren Barguil. Knowing Barguil’s ability to seemingly implode under high pressure (which is what he will be facing as a French GC rider at a French Stage race), Oomen could be Sunweb’s GC hopes for Paris-Nice. While he isn’t known especially for his time trial skills, he still beat his team mate by 14 seconds in Andalucia, and his climbing ability means that he might be able to pump it up Mont Brouilly. Oomen is definitely a contender in his own right for a top 10 place in Nice, it just depends on what the team wants in the end – if he works for Barguil he will still place highly because that requires following the big riders all the way to the finish, but if he rides for himself who knows what he can achieve.

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Sam Oomen shone at Andalucia, surely he will get a leading role at Sunweb soon. Source: Cor Vos.

The Unknown Entity: Tsgabu Grmay

I was going to do Ondrej Cink but his performances in the last month or two have shot him straight into the spotlight. However, when you look at Bahrain-Merida’s team, you usually just gloss over all the riders unless you see Nibali, Izagirre, Colbrelli or now Cink. However, this week, there is another man you can’t gloss over, and that is Tsgabu Grmay. The 25 year old Ethiopian has shown some great form in 2017 already at the Tour of Oman, getting 6th up Jebel Akhdar, keeping pace with more well-known climbers like Bardet (10th) and Aru (2nd). While only one mountain top finish is leaving the pure climber hanging for more, he might be able to keep pace with the pack all the way to the top and either launch Izagirre for the win or just go himself on that one day and try and consolidate his losses in the Stage 4 TT. Grmay is just starting to prove himself in 2017, keep an eye out for him.

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I stood right next to the photographer taking this shot at the TDU People’s Choice Classic. Grmay has really shot up since arriving at Bahrain-Merida. Source: Tim de Waele.

The Previous (2nd) Winner: Alberto Contador

Geraint Thomas isn’t coming to Paris-Nice this year to defend his title (grrrr…), so that means the honours of this title get handed down to Alberto Contador. Who has already won this race twice. And came second last year. Discounting Contador in a stage race is like discounting Sagan in a classic – you just can’t do it. After a second place behind Valverde at Andalucia (who is now absent), the Spanish leader of Trek will be hoping to have a great performance this week coming in his Tour de France preparations. He has a great team of domestiques behind him including Gregory Rast, Haimar Zubeldia and Michael Gogl who all have one goal in mind, get Alberto in yellow in Nice. And if the bookies have it their way, he is second to Porte at 15/4. Get fluttering guys, it could be Contador’s year for the hat trick.

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Contador is probably smiling because Valverde isn’t racing Paris-Nice in 2017. Only Porte to overcome for him. Source: Getty Images.

And that’s a wrap for my Paris-Nice preview for 2017! I’ll get around to posting my Tirreno-Adriatco preview tomorrow to wrap up a massive weekend of previews, but as for Paris-Nice, Richie Porte will take the win ahead of Bardet and Contador who will round out the podium. For now, I’m out.

~The Cycling Raven