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Paris-Nice (4th-11th March) is the first major stage race of the year. The race to the sun, as it is also known, has certainly not lived up to its name in previous years. Rather a race to the sun it’s been a race to the snow, sleet and rain, which has made for an exciting race. ASO, the same organisers as Le Tour, are responsible for the 8 day stage race and all the major Pro Tour teams are in attendance with a handful of the Pro Continental teams too. All will be turning up with strong squads, a definite plan to either challenge for the GC, one of the leader’s jerseys, or take a stage win.

The route for the 2012 edition seems to have a bit of everything. Sunday kicks the event off with an individual time trial of 9km to get everyone warmed up, and the following day should be ideal for the sprinters.

With only one cat 3 climb half way through, you would expect the stage to finish in a sprint, if it doesn’t then the teams with sprinters clearly aren’t doing their job properly.

Tuesday’s stage isn’t massively difficult, with the end of the stage finishing at Lac de Vassiviere. This area is reasonably hilly and although the roads around here are sheltered, the twists and turns could cause a few problems if an early move gets away and works well. The Limousin region is a surprisingly lumpy area, with a few good short sharp climbs around the lake area it would be a prime time for a late attack.

Wednesday sees the peloton tackle a few smaller climbs over the178km though there is nothing higher than a cat 2 leading in to the town of Rodez  where  the town sits on top of a hill. The area is full of great hills and climbs, nothing too long when compared to the Alps or Pyrenees, but this is still Midi-Pyrenees, so expect a few kickers.

Stage five should be a stunner. The roads leading from Onet-le-Chateau to Mende are tough, leg sappers with 6 categorised climbs along the way with the final one being the Montee Lauret Jalabert (cote de la Croix Neuve). This has seen some great action in the past, hence the French changed the name of the climb in honour of the French cycling legend Jalabert.

The climb itself isn’t long but it’s very steep, the last 3km are at 10%. The crazy thing about this climb is when you’ve scaled it you’re met by a small air strip. If you ever get to ride it, stay at the top a bit to catch a planes take off – the runway just drops off the side of the climb.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IrgHa8GHt0]

The last time it was used was for both Paris-Nice and Le Tour was 2012. Contador won with a great attack at the bottom of the climb in Paris-Nice but when it came to Le Tour he was pipped to the post by 2010’s Pro Tour winner Joaquin Rodriguez.

Friday’s stage is a difficult one to call, it’s hilly enough near the start, but these hills subside after the first 70km, from there it’s either downhill or just rolling. The sprint teams will want to keep it together as there is a sprint with just 19km to go, but with a few 2nd and 3rd cat climbs it’s not a bad day for a breakaway.

For Saturday ASO have put on a good stage for the TV viewers. A cat 1 climb comes with 55km to go and after that it’s a big long descent to the finish. Expect fireworks and a big shake up on this stage while going up the Col de Vence. Teams with guys who are going for GC will be keeping it together up until this stage and then letting all hell loose, as the following and last day is a short but sharp 9.6km stage.

The time trial on the Sunday climbs Col d’Eze. A 4.7% average climb over 9.6km. The climb starts in Nice, home to a good number of pros. The guys that live here are known to use this climb a lot during training, so expect riders like Ritchie Porte, who lives locally, hitting the climb and knowing how to ascend it with their eyes closed.

The race should go down to the wire! ASO have planned on a good uphill time trial to keep us all in suspense until the last moment. Will it be the big names? Or will we have a new up and coming contender take the race.

Here at PBK we can’t wait till it kicks off, so much so that I’ve decided to book a few days off and get some early season cheering in at the first few stages. I’ll try and come back with some good pictures and stories from the stage starts and finishes.

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