Carefully study of the start list of this 71st Paris-Nice suggests that the race appears to have lost some of its appeal.
With last year’s winner Bradley Wiggins absent, Team Sky will be ‘leaderless’ in as much as the riders who have led the teams in recent stage races – Wiggins and Chris Froome – are both absent. This means that the protected rider on the team will be, well, it could be Richie Porte or it could be Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.
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Apart from the absent Wiggins, there’s no Chris Froome, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) or Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) either. In other words, there’s a real dearth of stage race big hitters, so it looks like the way is open for a new name to add a prestigious stage race to their palmares.
Astonishingly, it looks like the French teams have their best chance to win the race in years, in fact, since Laurent Jalabert won back in 1997. An absence of big names allied to the ongoing clean-up in the overall health of cycling means the French should at least finish with a rider on the podium.
And perhaps a stage or two for their new sprint star, national champion Nacer Bouhanni of FDJ. The leader’s jersey should still be white though…
Robert Gesink (Netherlands) Blanco
Gesink has had a good winter, his ‘new’ team has been winning races all over – from Australia to Langkawi to France and Portugal – and Paris-Nice is Gesink’s first target of the year. He’s brought a motivated, strong, well-balanced team to help him and he’s been climbing well. If he can keep out of trouble early on, Gesink must be in with a chance of the podium at least. He’s even been working on his time trialling. The final podium beckons.
Rui Costa (Portugal) Movistar
Movistar is another team that has enjoyed a decent start to the season, principally through the absent Alejandro Valverde, but the team has looked strong and capable of riding to set up riders and defend a lead. Costa finished fifth overall in the Tour of the Algarve, a close second to Sky’s Sergio Henao on the toughest mountain stage and eighth behind Tony Martin in the decisive 35km time trial. Top five. Easy!
Jean-Christophe Peraud (France) Ag2r
The former mountain biker Peraud has some form in as much as he won the Mont Faron stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean, although he only finished second overall, on the same second as the overall winner Thomas Lovkvist. He can time trial a bit too – he was third behind Wiggins and Westra last year on the Col d’Eze. His weakness may yet be the team, but Samuel Dumoulin and 22-year-old Roman Bardet can climb well, offering him support in the key hilly stages at the back end of the race. Assuming of course he hasn’t been blown away in the crosswinds early on.
Simon Spilak (Russia) Katusha
Well, here’s a turn up, Katusha reclaimed its World Tour team status after an appeal to CAS and now finds itself at the start of Paris – Nice. Spilak was riding well in the Algarve and he’s got a band of henchmen around him – Denis Menchov, Yuri Trofimov – capable of doing whatever it takes.
Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin-Sharp
The Garmin team finds itself a little short of racing, since their bikes were stolen, en masse, prior to stage three of the Tour of the Mediterranean. Whether or not this will have had a major impact on Talansky’s form we can’t know. We suspect not. Talansky first showed his hand at this race two years ago and he’s only got better since. He can climb and he can time trial too. His form is unknown but his ability is in no doubt.
Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC
The all-American cycling ‘jock’ has a higher profile following his exploits in the 2012 Tour de France where he won the best young rider’s jersey. There have even been mutterings about him leading the BMC team in the 2013 Tour. He finished second in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina at the start of the year, but Paris-Nice is a step up from that. Capable of winning. Or capable of near anonymity.
Lieuwe Westra (Holland) Vacansoleil DCM
The surprise runner-up last year, a mere eight seconds behind Wiggins on general classification as well as two seconds behind on the final col d’Eze time trial, Westra showed well in the Tour of the Algarve, finishing third overall behind Tony Martin, who won the overall there thanks to a stunning time trial. Westra has a decent team around him, including 2012 Giro podium finisher Thomas De Gendt.
Ivan Basso (Italy) Cannondale
Basso is now 35 and has brought a team with him which is a mix of old hands and wet behind the ears children. It’s hard to see any one of them doing anything spectacular with the team’s new star Peter Sagan riding Tirreno-Adriatico, together with rising star Moreno Moser. With last year’s leader Vincenzo Nibali lured by Astana loot, the team is looking a bit light. If nothing else, the race should provide the thinking man’s rider Ted King some good material for his blog.
Sylvain Chavanel (France) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
Chavanel has showed his face at a few early season races, getting into breaks and stretching his legs – most notably at Het Nieuwsblad last weekend. He’s got a decent time-trial pedigree of course, though whether or not he can cope with the hillier stages is open to question. Peter Velits is due some kind of performance, but Tom Boonen still appears short of form.
Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) Astana
The Dane endured a torrid time with his former RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel last season. Essentially Bruyneel left him on the subs bench from July. So the Dane will be fresh as a new pro and have huge motivation. And he’s backed by a very solid team. Time for Jakob to put a few people straight? Or is it a bit too early for a man with an eye on the Tour de France?
Alexandre Geniez (France) FDJ
The FDJ team have been knocking at the door in early season races in France – Artur Vichot won the Tour du Haut-Var, sprinter Nacer Bouhanni won a stage in Oman – so the team is on the up, in terms of morale. Geniez is an experienced enough, he can get over hills and post a decent time trial too. Between Bouhanni and William Bonnet, the team is probably hoping for a stage win and a top five overall.
Thomas Lovkvist (Sweden) IAM Cycling
Lovkvist quit Sky last year to strike out on his own and he’s already won the Tour of the Mediterranean this season. It’s hard to believe that a new Swiss team will have the manpower and smarts to influence the race, but Lovkvist is no fool and he appears to have some form.
Richie Porte (Australia) Sky
So far this year, the Australian hasn’t shown the same form which saw him triumph in the Tour of the Algarve in 2012, but if he’s still nurturing some ambition, then this might be his chance to remind the world that he’s more than a super-domestique in the mountains. This is a rider who led the Giro d’Italia, remember.
Nicolas Roche (Ireland) Saxo-Tinkoff
Roche knows these roads and this race well enough to ride most of them blindfold and he’s shown himself near the front in enough early-season races to suggest that he’s got something in the tank for a top 10 finish at least. In the absence of Alberto Contador, this will be one of Roche’s few chances, although there’s likely to be competition from a strong Danish contingent in the team.
Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (GB) Sky
The man known to many as ‘JTL’ has had a low-key start to the year. He rode in the Mallorca Trophy and went on to ride the Tour of the Algarve where he finished 51st. Tiernan-Locke finished well enough in the road stages but lost seven minutes in the 35km time trial to stage winner Tony Martin, though you suspect this was more to do with his workload than ability. Recall also that he won three stage races in France last year, so maybe there’s something about French roads that suit him.
Thomas Voeckler (France) Europcar
Whether he’s got the legs for it or not, gurning Tommy V will lead Europcar to Nice. He’s a long way short of the form that gave him two stage wins in 2011 and a fall in the recent Tour du Haut-Var won’t have helped his form or those dodgy knees. It’s hard to see him doing much more than showing his face, though he did get in the break of the hilly Classic Sud Ardeche in a field that was fairly weak. If he gains 10 minutes on the other favourites by getting into a freak break early on, he’s got a chance of a top 20.