Paris-Nice, the first major European stage race of the season, begins this weekend with the organisers hopeful that a tough parcours can produce an unpredictable week of racing.

With eight of the last ten editions being won by riders subsequently embroiled in doping cases, the race (March 6-13) desperately needs to be both exciting and clean.

The undulating route will appeal to sprinters, rouleurs and climbers alike, as well as providing a welcome break from the monotonous flat roads of the Tour Down Under and Tour of Qatar.

With double-winner Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) opting not to defend his title, the limelight falls on Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek), who perennially rides well in the race.

It will be interesting to see if Schleck rides aggressively in the ‘Race to the Sun’, like Contador did last year, or contently using the week-long event as preparation for a bigger objective come July (his brother’s form permitting).

Paris-Nice 2011: Key stages
Organisers have made changes to the race for 2011, scrapping both the prologue for the first time in 15 years and a mountain top finish that had been so decisive in the previous four editions.

The first GC shakedown is likely to occur on stage five from Saint-Symphorien Sur-Coise to Vernoux-En-Vivarais. Seven climbs lie along the 193km route, including two first category passes. The last of these, the Col de la Mûre, is just 7km from the finish, and averages 8.3 per cent. After a brief descent, there is a slight incline into the finish, so the first rider to start the run-in towards Vernoux-En-Vivarais may not necessarily take the win.

Replacing the opening day’s test against the watch is a 27km time trial from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence (stage six). The last time Paris-Nice featured an individual time trial this long was in 1968, and it will be interesting to see how the many of the GC favourites, as well as the Sky duo of Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, fare here.

The course is rolling and the only real difficulty could come in the shape of two tight roundabouts in the final kilometre, which could be treacherous if wet.

The penultimate day of racing (stage seven) will see the peloton tackle two first-category climbs – the Côte de Cabris and the Col du Ferrier – but 100km lies between them and the finish. This stage in Biot-Sophia Antipolis is the longest of the race at 215km, and could well favour a escape group seeking a day of glory.

The traditional finale on the Promenade des Anglais (stage eight) comes after a short 124km stage,
but the Col d’Eze – positioned just 15km from the finish – could provide the launch-pad for a shakeup of the GC, as it did in 2007 when Alberto Contador dislodged Davide Rebellin from the race lead.

Paris-Nice 2011: Video highlights
Cycling Weekly will be presenting a highlights video from the 2011 edition of Paris-Nice after the event.

Paris-Nice 2010, stage seven

Paris-Nice 2011: Stages
Stage one, Sunday March 6: Houdan – Houdan, 154.5km
Stage two, Monday March 7: Montfort l’Amaury – Amilly, 199km
Stage three, Tuesday March 8: Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire – Nuits-Saint-Georges, 202km
Stage four, Wednesday March 9: Crêches-sur-Saône – Belleville, 191km
Stage five, Thursday March 10: Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise – Vernoux-en-Vivarais, 193km
Stage six, Friday March 11: Rognes – Aix-en-Provence (ITT), 27km
Stage seven, Saturday March 12: Brignoles – Biot – Sophia Antipolis, 215km
Stage eight, Sunday March 13: Nice, 124km


Paris-Nice 2011 map

Paris-Nice 2011 map. Click to enlarge in new window. Map: ASO

Paris-Nice 2011: Teams
Our pick of who might win>>
Ag2r-La Mondiale
Astana
BMC Racing Team
Bretagne Schuller
Cofidis
Euskatel-Euskedi
Francaise des Jeux
Garmin-Cervelo
HTC-Highroad
Katusha
Lampre-ISD
Leopard-Trek
Liquigas-Cannondale
Movistar
Omega Pharma-Lotto
Quick Step
Rabobank
Radioshack
Saxo Bank-Sungard
TeamSky
Team Europcar
Vacansoleil-DMC

Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez on the podium, Paris-Nice 2010, stage seven

Paris-Nice: Recent winners
2010: Alberto Contador (Spa)
2009: Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa)
2008: Davide Rebellin (Ita)
2007: Alberto Contador (Ita)
2006: Floyd Landis (USA)
2005: Bobby Julich (USA)
2004: Jorg Jaksche (Ger)
2003: Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)
2002: Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)
2001: Dario Frigo (Ita)

Paris-Nice: Last year’s top ten (2010)
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 28-35-35
2. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 25 secs
3. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-Doimo at 26 secs
4. Samuel Sanchez (Esp) Euskatel-Euskadi at 30 secs
5. Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 35 secs
6. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 37 secs
7. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at 1-07
8. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 1-16
9. Jerome Coppel (Fra) Saur-Sojasun at 1-17
10. Nicholas Roche (Irl) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 1-23

Paris-Nice 2011: British TV guide
Sun March 6: 12.15-2pm: Paris- Nice stage one, LIVE, British Eurosport 2
Sun March 6: 5-6pm: Paris- Nice stage one, highlights, British Eurosport

Mon March 7: 2.45-4.15pm: Paris- Nice stage two, LIVE, British Eurosport
Mon March 7: 7-8pm: Paris- Nice stage two, highlights, British Eurosport

Tues March 8: 2.45-4.15pm: Paris- Nice stage three, LIVE, British Eurosport
Tues March 8: 6-7pm: Paris- Nice stage three, highlights, British Eurosport

Wed March 9: 2.45-4.15pm: Paris- Nice stage four, LIVE, British Eurosport
Wed March 9: 10.30-11.30pm: Paris- Nice stage four, highlights, British Eurosport

Thurs March 10: 2.45-4.15pm: Paris- Nice stage five, LIVE, British Eurosport
Thurs March 10: 7-8pm: Paris- Nice stage five, highlights, British Eurosport

Fri March 11: 2.45-4.15pm: Paris- Nice stage six, LIVE, British Eurosport
Fri March 11: 10.30-11.30pm: Paris- Nice stage six, highlights, British Eurosport

Sat March 12: 2.30-4.45pm: Paris- Nice stage seven, LIVE, British Eurosport 2
Sat March 12: 6-7pm: Paris- Nice stage seven, highlights, British Eurosport

Sun March 13: 12.30-2pm: Paris- Nice stage eight, LIVE, British Eurosport
Sun March 13: 7.45-8.45pm: Paris- Nice stage eight, highlights, British Eurosport

Related links

Paris-Nice 2011: Who will win?

Paris-Nice 2010: The Big Preview/links to coverage