C-Cycling
Tour Down Under 2014

09-16 March 2014

It is time for the second World Tour stage race of the season. Paris-Nice used to be the first real fight between the Grand Tour riders. However, with Tour Down Under stepping up and Tour of Oman added to the calendar, we’ve already seen the Tour de France contenders fight each other this season. Actually, we only have one of the big Tour de France favorites starting Paris-Nice. One of the main reasons for this is most likely the lack of tough climbs.

The route
The eight stages of this year’s Paris-Nice seem very unchallenging at first glance. There is neither a single regular mountain top finish nor have the organizers included a time trial. Some might call it boring, but I think it will be the exact opposite. Without a mountain top finish and a time trial, the GC riders have to attack each other where they normally wouldn’t now. Due to the lack of long climbs, the riders may be forced to use the downhill sections to attack and open up gaps. There are 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds on the line and I’m sure that these will prove to be extremely important for the overall classification. The way I see it, the Queen Stage is on the very last day of the race, which means it will be a fierce fight for the overall podium all the way to the finishing line in Nice.

The favorites
With this kind of parcours, it’s impossible to pick out one big favorite for the general classification. Vincenzo Nibali, Richie Porte and Rui Costa are probably the three main contenders, but the list is long. Usually, Nibali prefers Tirreno-Adriatico to Paris-Nice but a couple of factors made him change his usual race program. Original, Nibali aimed big at Milano - San Remo and by doing Paris-Nice instead of Tirreno-Adriatico, he would get one extra day of rest before the Italian one day race. However, with the new and sprinter-friendly route for Milano-San Remo, it will be very difficult for Nibali to win. Another reason for doing Paris-Nice is that Astana wants to make Nibali more international. A charm offensive, which will ideally win over the French audience alongside the road for the Tour de France.

Richie Porte won Paris-Nice last year and he’s eager to prove that he can do it again. Porte is aiming to win the Giro d’Italia this year, but so far he hasn’t shown he’s up for the task yet. Despite winning on Willunga Hill, he didn’t make the overall podium in Tour Down Under earlier this year and in Ruta del Sol, he was beaten by Alejandro Valverde, both uphill as well as against the clock. This year, there is no time trial to help Porte gain time on his rivals in Paris-Nice and it will be very interesting to see how he will tackle this course. He starts out the race with number one on his back, ready to defend his title. However, without neither a mountain top finish nor a time trial, I think it will be very difficult for Richie Porte to repeat last year’s performance.

UPDATE - Due to back pains, Chris Froome won't take part in Tirreno-Adriatico next week. Therefore, Team Sky has decided to put in Richie Porte instead. This means - naturally - that Porte won't take part in Paris-Nice. Good news for Geraint Thomas - as you will read below.

My personal favorite for the overall win is Rui Costa. The World Champion knows what it takes to win these kinds of one week races and he has proven to be in very good shape already. He finished 3rd overall in Volta al Algarve last month and he’s now ready to take on Paris-Nice. This year’s very undulating stages suit Rui Costa perfectly and, as an opportunistic rider, he won’t hesitate to take a chance whenever possible. The Portuguese rider has the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France as his main goals for this season but Paris-Nice is also an important race on his calendar. Rui Costa came close to taking his first win in the Rainbow jersey on home soil in Algarve when he finished second in no less than three different stages. I think that he will achieve his first win as World Champion in Paris-Nice.

Without a time trial a lot of riders have a good chance of making the podium overall in this race. Riders like Carlos Betancur and Tom-Jelte Slagter are both very explosive and capable of taking valuable bonus seconds on the line. Slagter won Tour Down Under riding for Blanco (now Belkin) but is now leading Garmin in Paris-Nice. The American team made podium last year with Andrew Talansky and if Slagter is up for the task, he might as well give Garmin another podium spot in the race. Carlos Betancur has made huge progress since Tour San Luis. Despite carrying a few extra kilos, he still managed to beat John Degenkolb in a sprint recently. Betancur has his eyes set on the Ardennes Classics next month. This will be an important test towards those races. As a French team, Ag2r naturally has high hopes for Paris-Nice and if Carlos Betancur doesn’t lose time in the first sprint stages, they have very good chances of a strong overall result. In shape, Betancur must be the number one favorite for Stage 6. More on that later.

The outsiders
As mentioned before, the list of overall contenders for Paris-Nice is long this year. Riders like Simon Gerrans, Sylvain Chavanel, Arnold Jeannesson and the Schleck brothers all deserve to be mentioned among the Top10 candidates. The same goes for Zdenek Stybar, Cyril Gautier, Wilco Kelderman, Romain Bardet, Maxime Monfort, Thomas Voeckler, Enrico Gasparotto, Simon Spilak, Rafal Majka and Damiano Caruso. And what about Tejay Van Garderen? The young American just finished second overall in Tour of Oman last month. This is a big year for Van Garderen who will be leading BMC in the Tour de France this summer. On Green Mountain, in Tour of Oman, Van Garderen proved to be in great shape as he was the first rider to cross the finishing line after Chris Froome. Still, without long climbs or a time trial, I don’t think Van Garderen will be able to win this race. However, Tejay, if you are reading, I hope you will prove me wrong on this one.

My two personal jokers for the overall podium are Tony Gallopin and Geraint Thomas; not exactly your regular one-week-stage-race-kind-of-guys, but then again, this is not a regular one week stage race. The bonus seconds on the line could very well end up deciding this year’s Paris-Nice and especially Gallopin is very fast in a sprint. The young Frenchman joined Lotto-Belisol this season to improve the team’s roster for the hilly Classics. Tony Gallopin is good on the climbs and fast on the line - exactly what you need to do well in the Classics and exactly what you need to do well in this race, too. I think Tony Gallopin is France’s best chance to have a rider on the final podium.

Geraint Thomas still hasn’t decided if we wants to be a rider for the Classics or for the stage races. Personally, I would like him to pick the latter. He finished third overall in Tour Down Under last year after distancing the peloton on the steep gradients on Corkscrew Road. This year he finished 8th overall in Australia - working for his team leader - and last month, he was outstanding in setting up Richie Porte on the climbs in Ruta del Sol. As mentioned earlier, Porte didn’t have the legs to finish it off but Thomas surely showed that he is in great shape. As defending champion, Richie Porte is naturally the designated leader at Team Sky but hopefully this doesn’t mean Thomas won’t get a chance to take the GC favorites by surprise. It will be difficult to keep the peloton together in these undulating finales and as an Olympic pursuit champion, you simply can’t give Geraint Thomas just a couple of meters and still expect to catch him before the line. I will say it again; the bonus seconds will be extremely important in Paris-Nice this year! If you win a stage and then manage to stay close to the favorites, you are already very close to the overall podium.

The sprinters
As you will see below, the first three stages of the race are made for the sprinters. Therefore, it’s also a surprise not to see any of the top sprinters take part in Paris-Nice this year. However, despite not having Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel or Andre Greipel on the start list, we still find top sprinters like Nacer Bouhanni, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Matt Goss and Tom Boonen. Add to that list the fast youngsters Bryan Coquard, Michael Matthews, Adrien Petit, Moreno Hofland, Fabio Felline and Steele Von Hoff and you’ll see the field is very strong - not to forget Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gianni Meersman, Taylor Phinney or Francesco Gavazzi.

On paper, Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb are the two top favorites for the sprint stages but with such a strong and equal field, anything can happen. Moreno Hofland has proven to be in excellent shape right now, winning the final stage of Ruta del Sol and taking second place in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last Sunday. As a Frenchman in a French team, Bryan Coquard will be eager to perform well in Paris-Nice. He won two stages in Etoile de Bessèges at the beginning of February and finished 3rd behind Mark Cavendish and Arnaud Démare on the final stage of Volta al Algarve. Coquard has a powerful kick on the final meters and I wouldn’t be surprised if he took his first World Tour win here.

Stage 1


On paper, the first three stages of Paris-Nice this year are made for the sprinters. This stage ends with three laps of 33 km, each including the category 3 climb Côte de Vert. The climb is only 1.5 km and its average gradient of 4.4 % shouldn’t change the final outcome of the stage; a bunch sprint. There are at least four tricky corners within the final four kilometers of the stage. Furthermore, the riders have to overcome three roundabouts. The final 1.2 km are straight out towards the finishing line.

Favorites: Nacer Bouhanni / John Degenkolb

Stage 2


Another one for the sprinters. According to the profile, the final 45 km seem a little undulating. However, anything but bunch a sprint would be a surprise. The final two kilometers kick up with about 2-3 %, which favors sprinters like John Degenkolb and Matt Goss. This finish also suits in-shape Alexander Kristoff. In Tour de Suisse last year, the strong Norwegian outsprinted Peter Sagan and Arnaud Démare in a somehow similar finish.

Favorites: John Degenkolb / Alexander Kristoff

Stage 3


Looking at the profile, there is absolutely nothing that indicates this shouldn’t end as a regular bunch sprint. However, if you look closely, you will discover a very tricky finish. There are about six 90° corners within the final five kilometers, which also include three 180° bends. Only the last 250-300 meters seem to be straightforward. This means it will be extremely important to remain well-placed on the final kilometers. The many twist and turns will stretch out the peloton and you have to be within the first three riders coming out of the last corner if you want to win this stage.

Favorites: Nacer Bouhanni / Bryan Coquard

Stage 4


This is the first chance for the GC riders to take time on each other. The final 60 km include four categorized climbs. The last one, Côte du Mont Brouilly, has its top just 14.5 km from the finishing line. It’s a category 3 climb and the 3 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8.4 %. The final two kilometers are especially steep with parts of 25 %. Explosive riders with good downhill skills are the favorites for this stage. The steep gradients are perfect for someone like Carlos Betancur, while the descent will suit riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Rui Costa. Today’s winner could very well make the overall podium as well.

Favorites: Rui Costa / Tony Gallopin

Stage 5


Usually, this would be a stage for a breakaway. However, since there aren’t any mountain top finishes or time trials to shape the GC, the riders fighting for the overall win can’t afford to let any chances slip away. The bonus seconds on the line are very important. Riders who are good on the downhill sections will most likely try to attack on the final descent as only the last two kilometers are flat. Should it come back to a sprint, look to Tony Gallopin.

Favorites: Vincenzo Nibali / Sylvain Chavanel

Stage 6


This is a very important stage for the overall classification. The final 60 km include four categorized climbs. Col de Bourigaille (Cat1 - 8.2 km / 5.9 %) has its top just 20 km from the line. After the descent and a few flat kilometers, the final 1.7 km of the stage are uphill with an average gradient of about 7.5 %. This is the only uphill finish in the race and therefore the pure climbers’ best chance of success.

Favorite: Carlos Betancur

Stage 7


After three hard stages - shaping the general classification - this could be the day a breakaway makes it to the end. It’s up and down all day long. The organizers only have categorized five climbs today but there is not a meter of flat road on the 195.5 km from Mougins to Biot Sophia Antipolis. Writing these short stage previews before the race has started, I naturally don’t know which riders will have lost ground already. What I can say is that this type of stage is perfect for opportunistic riders like Thomas Voeckler, José Serpa and Jan Bakelants. The final two kilometers kick up with 4-5 % so unless you’re riding solo, it’s important to pack a solid uphill sprint as well today. If a group with the overall favorites arrives together, Tony Gallopin and Zdenek Stybar will be my picks.

Stage 8


This is the final stage of the race and most likely the most crucial one for the general classification as well. The 128 km around Nice include no less than five categorized climbs, the last one being the famous Col d’Èze (Cat3 - 4.3 km / 6.7 %). I would imagine the first five riders in the GC to be within seconds of each other and this should give us fireworks on the final climb. There are only 15 km to go from the top of Col d’Èze and the descent is tricky. If Nibali is within striking distance, I’m sure he will give it a go.

Favorites: Vincenzo Nibali / Simon Gerrans

For live coverage of this year's Paris-Nice 2014 go to steephill.tv.