While the Omloop Het Nieswauld marks the beginning of the European professional classic season, the 8-day Paris-Nice(PN) event signals the beginning of the stage racing season. PN goes from, well, Paris to Nice and is the first big goal for all the Pro Tour teams. Not only are the stage race riders looking to show well, but because PN offers racing for all types of riders, just about everyone is hoping that they can prove something to their team directors and sponsors.
The format gives the first few days to the sprinters on flat roads, then gives the less vertically-challenged opportunists their day in the sun. The last several stages are downright hilly and usually feature the climbers. With all the chances to show, PN is extremely competitive and a stage win here is highly treasured. And if you think the weather has been bad for the past two editions of the Amgen Tour of California, try freezing temps and snow for mile after mile if the weather turns unfriendly.
As an interesting side note, Greg Lemond's old nemesis on the bike, Laurent Fignon, used to own the race. Unfortunately, he never incorporated the event into a company(limited liability corporation or LLC). When he got divorced a few years ago the judge deciding on the division of assets couldn't figure out how to split up the race. Should Laurent get Paris and his soon-to-be ex-wife get Nice? Luckily, ASO stepped in and bought the race.
But, I digress. In the 2009 edition of the event, the fireworks have been going off since the opening prologue where Alberto Contador, not known as a fastman in a flat 5.5mi (9km) prologue crushed everyone including Garmin-Slipstream's double 2008 gold medalist Bradley Wiggins. Two days later, a well-planned attack in severe crosswinds by Team Rabobank put Contador in trouble and opened the door for Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel in the leader's jersey.
This might seem insignificant except that Sylvain is French, Paris-Nice is a French race (well, duh) and the French have been dying to find a new hero for over 20 years to replace the likes of Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the last two Frenchmen to win the Tour de France. Chavanel will be under attack by Alberto Contador and it will be a great race to Nice with a very difficult day in the mountains on Friday.
Not lost in all the Franco-drama, was the cracking ride by Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde who continues to climb out from under the domestique shadow notching a huge solo stage win into the legendary bike city of St. Etienne. After crashing hard in the prologue, it shows the measure of the man to pick himself up and get a very tough stage victory. Chapeau Christian.
It is going to be a very exciting run into Nice. Can Chavanel carry the weight of the whole French nation on his shoulders up the Col de Eze or will the 'Pistolero of Pinto' (Alberto, you really need to work on a better moniker) gun him down?
The Paris-Nice race has a date with the "Giant of Provence" on Thursday and it looks to be epic. The weather so far in the 'Race to the Sun' has made the conditions at the recent Amgen Tour of California look downright tropical. Bucketing rain and cold temps have caused shortened stages and a general lethargy in the pack. Who could blame them!
All that will change on Thursday as Mont Ventoux looms on the horizon. It's still winter, especially in France, which means that the riders won't be going all the way to the lofty, 6400 foot summit. A friend of mine rode to the top a month or so ago and ended up pushing through some pretty major drifts. Instead the race will finish at about the 4400-foot level at the ski station of Mont Serein. For those of you familiar with Lance Armstrong's epic battles on Ventoux in the Tour de France and the Dauphine Libere, Mont Serein is on the other side of the mountain, the north slopes.
The climb is a bit easier from the north, but by no means is it a gimmee. In fact, from the Maulecene, at the base, the average gradient is much more constant
and overall greater (7.2% vs 7.1%) than the more well-known south side start in Bedoin. Heck, whatever side you ride up this legend of cycling will leave you gasping, but with lots of great memories.
For the pro riding Paris-Nice this will be a 3300-foot climb and will be a rude awakening, especially for those racers who aren't really peaking for this race. My guess is that this will be a battle between Luis Leon Sanchez(Caisse d'Epargne) and Frank Schleck(CSC) with Robert Gesink(Rabobank) and Sylvain Chavanel(Cofidis) as spoilers. Hopefully, Slipstream Chipotle's David Millar can hang in there, though the climb may be a bit longer than his liking.
One dark horse is High Road's Craig Lewis. With a 6.4 watts/kg power output, he has the potential to be up there with the best, but in his first full-season on the European pro circuit, he may be on a steep learning curve.
Regardless of what happens, the European stage racing season officially opens on Thursday. Get there early for the best seats!