Multiple snow storms in the past couple weeks and the arrival of March has us at Higher Gear dreaming of clear blue skies, sunshine and days spent on the bike. We’re not alone. This is the time of year when our fellow Gear Heads start getting excited about the upcoming Spring Classics.
As a sort of teaser to the arrival of Spring, this past Sunday marked the start of the Race to the Sun, as the Paris-Nice stage race is called. Departing from the cold, grey skies of Paris’ suburbs, professional riders head south towards the clear blue French Riviera.
In its 71st year for 2013, Paris-Nice began for the first time in the town of Houilles, 12 km outside of Paris. Over eight stages in eight days, the route winds its way south before turning southeast through Nice to end in a 9.6 km time trial with demanding ascents up the Col d’Eze.
The 2.9 km prologue over a flat terrain is followed by three largely flat stages designed for sprint finishes. After favoring the sprinters for the first part of the week, the route begins throwing in a few climbs Wednesday.
The uphill battle continues Thursday with the route becoming more and more demanding. Stage 4 features seven categorized climbs, beginning with a challenging section at over 1000m climbing the slopes of Condat. Another 1244m climb up to the Col du Rouvey brings riders 63 km from the finish line. The downhill stretch is interrupted by two more short but intense climbs, perfect for long-distance attacks.
Stage 5 features a series of challenges, culminating at the Montagene de Lure. This prestigious climb, a 14 km race to finish at an altitude of 1600m, is the highest stage finish in the history of this race. It will test the field and certainly help decide the standings.
If Friday’s uphill finish on Montagne de Lure doesn’t decide the overall winner, Sunday’s legendary 9.6 km uphill time trial on the Col d’Eze surely will.
It was at the Col d’Eze last year that Bradley Wiggins donned the yellow jersey as the 2012 Paris-Nice winner, a prelude to what Wiggins would go on to accomplish later that year. While Wiggins has opted to not race this year’s Paris-Nice, in favor of focusing on the Giro d’Italia, there are plenty of top-notch racers vying for the win here.
One person with eyes on March 10th’s podium is American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team). Van Garderen captured the best young rider jersey here before going on to do the same at the Tour de France last year. He’s already proved his mettle in 2013, taking second place at the Tour de Luis, a seven-stage race held in Argentina, in January. Van Garderen announced this race as a primary objective for the 2013 season. Supporting him in his efforts here is teammate and reigning World Road Race Champion Philippe Gilbert. The Belgian is using Paris-Nice to prepare himself for the Spring Classic Milan-SanRemo.
Son of former Paris-Nice and Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, Ireland’s Nicolas Roche will be leading a Contador-less Team Saxo-Tinkoff. Roche has confessed high ambitions for this race, hoping for a podium finish. “If I can get on to the podium, then all the better. I am targeting the top five.”
Along with Van Garderen, another American, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), will set out to prove that Americans are formidable components in the world’s tours. Netherlander Robert Gesink (Blanco Pro Cycling), the 26-year-old winner of last year’s Tour of California, is hoping to make his mark here. Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) is hoping to prove he’s worthy of a leadership role on his new team. Czech rider Roman Kreuziger (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) is leading his new team.
Belgian Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Italian Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida) and Australian Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) have won stages here before. And veteran champions Italian Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and Russian Denis Menchov (Katusha Team) set out to prove they’re not ready to retire.
Paris-Nice updates are being aired locally on NBC Sports at midnight each night. Check here for options for live updates and online viewing.