Roglič the man to beat in his first race of the season
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) returns to racing for the first time since winning the Vuelta a España last November, to begin what could be a career-defining season for the Slovenian.
He’ll start as favourite, as he does for pretty much every stage race he starts. Since April 2018, he’s been on an extraordinary run of success in non-Grand Tour stage races, winning the overall classification in seven of the last nine he has competed in.
This will be his first ever Paris-Nice, and the crosswinds for which the race is notorious could pose a different kind of challenge than he’s used to, but the Slovenian has generally risen to every other challenge he’s encountered these past few years, and the punchy climbs and time trial stage will surely suit him.
Two of the riders set to support him at the Tour de France — road captain Tony Martin and key climber Steven Kruijswijk — will both be present, while climbing domestiques George Bennett and Sam Oomen will both look to earn the slot in that line-up left vacant by Tom Dumoulin as he takes a break from cycling.
As the first step towards his ultimate goal of victory at this year’s Tour, Roglič and Jumbo-Visma will be expecting a strong start.
Tao Geoghegan Hart takes leadership duty at Ineos Grenadiers
Was Tao Geoghegan Hart’s stunning overall victory at the Giro d’Italia last year a one-off, or should the Briton now be considered one of the world’s top stage racers? That’s one of the big questions British fans are mulling over as the 2021 season gets going, and Paris-Nice will begin to offer an answer.
That Giro victory was not only the first time Hart had finished in the top 10 of a Grand Tour, but the first time he’d done so in any WorldTour stage race.
Significantly, in the vast majority of his previous appearances, he rode in the role of domestique with no ambitions of a high finish himself. This year’s Paris-Nice will therefore be a new experience for Hart, as he is set to lead the team, with a squad of quality domestiques including his Giro right-hand-man Rohan Dennis, new signing Laurens De Plus, and Richie Porte on his return to Ineos all working for him.
Whether or not Hart can handle the extra expectations of leading a team may shape how Ineos Grenadiers choose to deploy him this season, making Paris-Nice potentially a dress rehearsal for the Tour de France. Could he follow in the footsteps of Egan Bernal, who won Paris-Nice in 2019, and went on to win the Tour de France later that season?
Defending champion Schachmann among other overall contenders
Last year’s Paris-Nice was a strange, eerie affair. It took place just as the Covid crisis was coming to a head, and continued despite calls for it to cease as the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, until finally stopping a day early.
The cancellation of that final, mountainous stage also helped ensure that two riders who do not usually compete for GC, Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Tiesj Benoot (then Sunweb) sealed first and second on general classification. They both return this year, perhaps with a point to prove that they can still compete for GC on a full-length Paris-Nice, although Benoot may find himself reverting to a domestique role in support of DSM team-mate Jai Hindley, who could renew his rivalry with Tao Geoghan Hart following their battle at last year’s Giro.
Perhaps the rider best equipped to take on Primož Roglič will be Alexander Vlasov (Astana Premier-Tech), of whom great things are expected this year after his breakthrough 2020 season.
Outside bets include David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), who’s made a great start to 2021 with victory at the Ardeche Classic; Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), who might be set for a breakthrough season having started with fifth overall at the UAE Tour; and home favourite Guillame Martin (Cofidis).
Bennett does battle with Démare in the sprints
Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) might have got the better of all the other sprinters at the UAE Tour last month to open his account for the season with a couple of stage wins, but there was one significant caveat — the absence of Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).
The Irishman is now thought by many as being the best sprinter in the peloton, thanks to his many successes last season, but for him to really earn that title, he’s going to have to get the better of Démare head-to-head.
The two have not raced against each other since the Tour de Wallonie last August, in which time Bennett has sprinted to five wins and Démare a whopping nine, including four during a career-best purple patch at the Giro d’Italia.
The pair will likely have three bunch sprints to do battle in during Paris-Nice, where they will also face competition from Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), who won a stage last year, and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Potential for crosswinds to blow up the race
One of the defining features of Paris-Nice are crosswinds. They’ve played a huge role in each of the last two editions, with Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) basing his overall victory in 2019 by defying expectations to excel in the strong winds, and multiple overall contenders were blown out of contention during a blustery opening to last year’s race.
It’s impossible to predict if and how the winds will cause havoc again this year, but it certainly has the potential to, with the exposed roads on a flat second stage in particular one to look out for.
As well as potentially shaping the GC, crosswinds would also make stage wins possible for rouleurs and Classics specialists, of which there are many this year.
The likes of Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroën), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Victorious) may look to go clear for breakaway wins in such conditions, while strong sprinters like Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) would fancy their chances in a reduced bunch sprint.
Several rouleurs will also be eyeing up the time trial, including the winner of last year’s stage against the clock, Søren Kragh Andersen (DSM), while time trial specialist Victor Campanaerts (Qhubeka-Assos) will also be among the favourites having looked strong on his first days of racing this season.