Known as the ‘Race to the Sun’, Paris-Nice is meant to herald the beginning of spring, marking the transition from pre-season across the globe to a return to the sport’s heartlands in Europe now that the sun has come back out.
>> Struggling to get to the shops? Try 6 issues of Cycling Weekly magazine for just £6 delivered to your door <<
At least that’s the theory – we know full well how temperamental the weather can be in Europe at this time of the year.
But the passage from colder climates to warm sunshine is built into the race’s DNA, which begins in the north (near, but not in, as the name suggests, Paris) and heads southwards until arriving in the sunny Mediterranean city of Nice.
If the forecasts are to be believed, the weather might just follow this pattern, with rainy conditions predicted for this weekend in the race’s start in Bois-d’Arcy, and sunshine for the weekend after in Nice.
The highest peak ever used at Paris-Nice
This year’s Paris-Nice is definitely one for the climbers, with a trio of back-to-back mountain stages making up the final three stages of the race, between them containing fourteen climbs categorised two or higher.
Even the final 3km of stage four’s 14.5km individual time trial take the riders up the steep, 7.7 per cent averaging Mont Brouilly.
The highlight of all these ascents will be the Col de la Couillole, an Alpine climb making its first appearance in the race, which, standing at a huge 1,678 metres, makes history for being the highest peak ever featured in Paris-Nice.
Although stage six packs five climbs in the final 80km, and stage eight ends with an ascent and descent of the familiarity decisive Col d’Eze, it’s stage seven’s finish atop the Col de la Couillole that’s likely to decide the race.
Richie Porte’s quest for a third Paris-Nice title
Following a first ever overall victory at the Tour Down Under in January, and his promotion to outright Tour de France leader for BMC, 2017 feels like it’s going to be a coming-of-age year for Richie Porte.
He’ll be hoping to continue that momentum with an overall victory at Paris-Nice, to add to the titles he won back in 2013 and 2015, and which would also extend his lead in the WorldTour.
His form and track record certainly make him a favourite, although the lack of time trialling kilometres – which played a big part in both his previous victories – will encourage many of his rivals, who include Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Ireland’s Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Britain’s Simon Yates (Orica-Scott).
Milan-San Remo contenders at Paris-Nice
Given that five of the last six winners of Milan-San Remo all used Paris-Nice as preparation, it’s perhaps no surprise that this year’s start list is full of sprinters eyeing up ‘La Primavera’.
Previous winners Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), last year’s runner-up Ben Swift (UAE Emirates) and other top candidates like Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) will all be present.
They will be testing their form in the first three stages, all of which are flat and look tailor made for bunch finishes.
Each will be hoping for tangible evidence of strong form with a stage win, although they will all have a hard time getting the better of Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors).
Giro d’Italia contenders at Tirreno-Adriatico
As the only WorldTour stage race held in Italy in the run-up to the Giro d’Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico is a key meeting point for those hoping to win the pink jersey in May.
Of the 12 bookies’ favourites for the Giro, nine are lining up here – most notable former winners Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but also Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas (Sky), Fabio Aru (Astana), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC).
Recent years suggest a strong ride here is necessary for winning the Giro in two month’s time – each of the last four winners of the pink jersey all finished in the top-six of the Tirreno-Adriatico beforehand – so expect a competitive race.
There’s a pleasingly symmetrical look to the Tirreno-Adriatico route, with starts and finishes with a time trial (a 22.7km team time trial up first, a 10km individual time trial rounding things off), and has its key mountain stage smack bang in the middle.
That stage finishes atop 16km-long Monte Terminillo, an alpine climb with a steep average gradient of over 7%, guaranteed to set fireworks off among the GC riders.
Gino Bartali, Luis Herrera and Stefano Garzelli are among the winners when the climb has been used in the Giro, while Nairo Quintana memorably triumphed here amid snowy conditions at the 2015 Tirreno.
Opportunities for puncheurs
Tirreno has been kind to puncheurs and Classics riders in recent years, to the extent that Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) managed to win the overall last year after the queen stage was cancelled.
That’s unlikely to happen again this time around, but there’s still ample opportunity for Van Avermaet and the like to land stage wins on days too flat for climbers and too bumpy for sprinters – specifically, stages two and five, which both feature rolling terrain throughout the day and an uphill finish.
These stages should play into the hands of the likes of Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), who already has three wins to his name this season; Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo), who appears to have his eye on the Classics this spring; and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), who has enjoyed success before in this race (having held the leader’s jersey in 2014) and is overdue a big win.