It's the start of the European based stage racing at the World Tour level and in it's 77th edition we are to be spoiled by an amazing startlist who will race all the way from Paris to the Cote d'Azur.
Coming from ASO's command we can expect a good coverage, the race has been part of the main cycling ranks since it was inaugurated in 2005 and it has seen Tour de France winners aswell as classics specialists win, although in the last few years the former have clearly taken up the lead.
The flat affair, the opening 3 stages of the race are pretty much pan-flat and that should be to the liking of the sprinter community, and it has indeed convinced many of the top sprinter to choose France over Italy as preparation for Milano-Sanremo.
As it is costume these 3 days will be marked by the rain, and, wait-for-it, CROSSWINDS! Yes there are predictions of northwestern wind which will translate as a cross-tailwind for the majority of stages 2 and 3, and the scenario we whitnessed in 2017 could have a repitition as the weather will be remarcably similar.
Stage 1 has an intermediate sprint located a mere 3Km away from the finish line that may shake some things up or get some GC riders to try out their luck with some seconds, which by the history of the race, CAN be race-defining, Stage 2 and 3 look very much like the same stage, both are pan-flat and even in the eventuality of echelons we should see a sprint deciding it in the end.
With sprinters like Gronewegen, Kittel, Ewan and many many more there will be an intense fight through those days, with the maillot jaune as an extra motivation for all of them to be up in the field.
The race moves on from the flatlands of central France and encounters it's first hilly stage in Loire territory. 212Km should make for a long day on the bike and the profile should suit some. The question here is if a breakaway will be allowed to take the win as a sprinter will surely be leading the race by then, the overall won't be shaken by such a profile, and there isn't really a stand-out rider to win the stage.
In the eventuality that the break doesn't succeed then the puncheurs are the riders to look at. A Matthews/Colbrelli/Démare type of rider should still be the favourite to win here except there's a team with a ferocious desire to blow up the race. In that scenario there are also several riders who can benefit, Teuns/Kwiatkowski/Gilbert are an example of someone who wouldn't be any surprise in case of a win.
So we can conclude it'll be a very undefined day, lots of possible scenarios, and we should see the GC men saving their energies for the time-trial the following day.
A big day for the GC riders. The time-trialists in contention for the stage win should be some of the men we will be seeing the following days in the mountains, so we might not see the stage win being THE absolute goal of any rider. Kwiatkowski, Ion Izaguirre and Bob Jungels might be the riders that deal better with this type of race against the clock, and the small hill leading to the intermediate check should play even more to their advantage.
A 25Km Time-trial in a week-long race as we all know is absolutely critical, sometimes the place where the biggest gaps are set. Everyone must bring their A-game thursday and hope to win as much time as possible/minimize the damage, variating on what rider's perspective we look at it.
A very transitional day, there isn't much that can be predicted about this day, it isn't hard enough to dispatch all the sprinters, but it isn't hard enough to see important attacks succeeding. Perhaps the bonus seconds with 4Km to go can trigger some riders into going on the offensive which is a good thing, but looking at the profile it doesn't really look like they would succeed.
This stage makes the connection to the Cote d'Azur and should be one either for a breakaway or a reduced bunch sprint. The weather may play a role but as the route changes direction multiple times on a large scale it doesn't seem like the wind will play a role, even if it's blowing hard on the day.
The queen stage of the race, it is a delightful addition to this year's edition, the Col de Turini is a very reputated climb for the Nice/Monaco cycling community, so we should have plenty of rider's knowing it like the back of their hand.
It's arguably the most important day of the race for the majority of riders, a bad day here will through a whole week of work down the drain, and a good day may pay off all the work done. The route is a typical Nice loop, with the finish not being far from the start. The first 170Km will fully be in very rolling terrain which will certainly wear out the legs of many, but the focus of the stage will be the final 15Km where fireworks are to be expected.
Luckily we have a world-class climber field in here, Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet, Miguel Angel Lopez, just to name a few... This will be a long one, 44 minutes is roughly the time the current KOM holder Rudy Molard took to climb up what should almost the identical segment they will climb on Saturday, so a minimum of 40 minutes will be taken to climb up this mountain. If that will suit some more than others, perhaps, but there is a very extensive list of names who will be looking for their chance to shine on this day.
The cards will be played on the classic final run-in to Nice. Another stage start in Nice will see the riders over a somewhat mountainous terrain. Like last year the 1,6Km Col d'Èze and Quatre Chemins combination in the final kilometers should make for a little more damage in the peloton.
The first 3 2nd category climbs should be the pace setter, with lots of attacks from riders looking for their glory and some trying to ambush the overall classification. When we get to the Côte de Peille we might start to get a very serious race in our hands, this climb has seen some of the most inspiring raids by Alberto Contador in the last few years, and last year it was Marc Soler who equaled his countryman's feat with the difference that his raid succeeded in netting him the overall win. Perhaps that spike in the road after La Turbie was the defining point of the race for him.
There is much we can expect from this day, although the route doesn't give in any long mountain we have seen that the Peille is more than enough to settle big gaps, and the two climbs that follow, alongside two fast descents (both to Nice) isn't exactly the type of terrain where one can just have an organized chase, it is raiding territory and with the gaps being settled the day before it is certain that there will be riders wanting more from the race, as only one can win the end.
We will have to divide this section into several groups, as the quality of the startlist is immense. Firstly let's discuss the overall contenders.
The first question should be, will it be these two battling for the win? Statistically speaking they are the ones that pack the best legs for the queen stage, but this race is much more than that. Quintana and Yates both looked good in February, both netting big wins, but at the same time, Quintana didn't look on mega form in Colombia, and Yates lost a load of time on the opening stage in Andalucia, and with very unpredictable weather incoming both of them can't afford to give in any extra time if they do want to win.
Miguel Angel Lopez comes next on the list, he leads a super strong Astana team where Ion Izaguirre should also be mentioned as a clear candidate, and the duo may be the ones to beat on French roads. Romain Bardet, Egan Bernal and Domenico Pozzovivo all pack great climbing legs but a little fragility against the clock, that can be their biggest enemy so they will need a staggering run of form to win the race.
On the time-trialist side we have Bob Jungels who looks in tip top form, Wilco Kelderman and... Michal Kwiatkowski. We don't know what Kwiatkowski's role will be here but we can count that in the right scenario he can very well be fighting for the win, all but the queen stage suit him like a glove and the mountains never seem to scare him.
We've also got the EF duo Rigo Uran and Dani Martinez, George Bennett, Patrick Konrad, Jack Haig, Dylan Teuns, Ilnur Zakarin, plus some outsiders that will certainly be hindered by the amount top GC riders present, but, aren't we forgetting someone?
The joker... On one hand we've got a deluxe domestique with a teammate who may be the strongest climber in the race. On the other, we've got a very strong climber with a strong against-the-clock reputation and a possible luxury domestique. Marc Soler took this race by the horns last year and came out big, and Simon Yates will surely be nervous when the Spaniard makes his presence felt.
Dylan Gronewegen as set himself out as the biggest name in the sprinter world alongside Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria. He has the power, he has the team, but he also has worthy rivals to point out.
Marcel Kittel opted for a less traditional presence in Paris-Nice and the truth is that all opening stages suit him, if he can keep control of his positioning and his Katusha squad work very well we can still see the comeback of one of the most powerful riders on the planet. Caleb Ewan will be another name pointing to an early lead, the same can be said about Sam Bennett who has recently won the final stage in the UAE Tour. Oh and, Andre Greipel will also be here, which can be a table-turning situation for the sprinters here, aswell as Alexander Kristoff
Arnaud Démare, Michael Matthews, Sonny Colbrelli and Matteo Trentin are those that will likely focus more on the two hilly stages as they all seem to have a good fit for them, but never to discount them for the flat finishes. Jakub Mareczko and Nicolo Bonifazio also worth a mention as they've been having really strong finishes this season, EBH and Cavendish may not be the riders they were some years ago but a good duo nonetheless. And finally we point the Deceuninck wonderkid Fabio Jakobsen as a man to watch. He will have higher competition than usual but we know he is well capable of battling with the strongest already, specially taking into account the team he's riding for.
Movistar/Mitchelton/Astana/Sky - These are the big name teams, these have the riders that are most fitted for the overall race and likely we'll be seeing them a lot in the mountains but very few time in the flat stages.
AG2R/Bahrain/EF - With Bardet, Pozzovivo and Uran these teams have good overall hopes but they will need a very attacked race to be able to do so, so you may expect to see these teams riding in the front trying to cause splits.
Sunweb/Deceuninck - Both have something in common, a sprint interest with Matthews/Jakobsen, and the strongest climber/time-trialist combinations with Kelderman and Jungels. Maybe they can be the crosswind igniters in the opening days, what we do know is that we can expect to see them in front riding tempo and hoping for slower days in the mountains.
Lotto Jumbo/Katusha/Lotto Soudal/FDJ/Bora - All these teams have their biggest focus on the sprints, all lead by their fastest men, all bunch wins should come from these teams.
CCC/Arkea/Dimension Data/Trek - All of them also have sprint ambitions, Mareczko/Greipel/Cavendish/Degenkolb are noteworthy names but they will need their share of luck to be able to take one home.
UAE - UAE is a mixed case, they have Kristoff for the sprints, Henao, Aru and Ulissi for the mountains and hills. They have lots of good riders but none that can be trusted as a true overall contention or stage winner.
Cofidis/Direct Energie/Delko/Vital Concept - They will likely target the breakaways more than the other teams. Sure than in Laporte and Coquard there are sprint choices in these teams, but they are far from the structure in the World Tour teams racing here.
⭐Soler, Pozzovivo, Bardet, Kelderman, Uran
I thoroughly believe the time-trial will be the deciding day and Turini will only resolve who are those that will stay in the top places. It's been that story where in the last few years several races were decided with the gaps made against the clock and then in the mountains the good time-trialists manage to hold the gap against the climbers. The hilly stages won't make much of a difference in time and Turini will only make limited gaps in comparison to the time-trial, so the winner will be someone who shatters the expectations on that crucial day.
I see Simon Yates taking the win, it is a very hard decision but he looks fit and he's won here for two years in a row, and he knows how to race in the rain and can defend himself against the clock very well. I would have Jungels for the win but his team are clearly not focused in him. The Astana boys will round the podium certainly, win is also very much in the table but it doesn't seem like one of them as the absolute legs to win here.
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