It’s official, the 2011 race season is now properly here!  There’s been racing in Australia, Oman and Qatar but now it is the turn of the Spring classics and we can’t wait.  On Sunday the 69th Paris-Nice starts; 8 stages and 1,307 km of action packed racing.  It’s one of the key early races to determine who the likely contenders are going to be so there’ll be many a point to prove and some big names going for it.   Before we look at the riders, lets take a look at the route.

Route Analysis:

Stage 1: Houdan to Houdan.

The Houdan Chicken, native to France and named after the town. The only chicken likely to be seen in the Paris-Nice.

The first stage will start and finish in the market town of Houdan.  The 154.5km has no major climbs (hardly any climbing at all in fact!), so this combined with the twists and turns in the partly urban setting will encourage the sprinters to have a go.  It remains to be see what the wind will do, it could be decisive on a relatively open, flat stage like this but the stage will be a relatively gentle warm up to the week of racing.

Stage 2: Montfort l’Amaury to Amiliy.

This 199km stage is again relatively flat, once again it is likely to end in a mass sprint but those wanting to be up front will have to be on their guard, the crosswinds of the Beauce plain could well break up the peloton. It will be interesting to see which teams can protect their riders and get them in to contention for the final charge for the line. 

Stage 3: Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire to Nuits-Saint-Georges.

This 202km stage should be quite a lively affair.  The twisting, undulating roads of the Morvan Natural Park, a Category 2 climb (Cote de Becoup, 5.1km to 5.3%) and a final twenty-five kilometres through the vineyards to Nuits-Saint-Georges should make for an interesting day.  The sprinters shouldn’t be discounted either, in 1977 a sprinter won this stage, so if the teams can protect their riders who knows what might happen.  There is of course the added incentive of a nice glass of red on arrival…

Stage 4: Creches-sur-Saone to Belleville.

Freddy Maertensm, his 1977 performance was one of the highlights of his career.

191km long and featuring three Category 2 and four Category 3 climbs this stage is likely to be hotly contested.  Previous winners include Boonen, McEwen and Baldato so watch out for teams jostling to get their sprinters and all-rounders into position.  The brave may try and attack on the slopes of the Col du Fut d’Avenas (Cat. 2), it’s just 45km from the finish line and downhill most of the way, so a few may have a go but don’t expect the pack to let them get too far – a small, well organised bunch could cause an upset.

Stage 5: Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise to Vernoux-en-Vivarais.

By the end of stage five we may have a very good idea of who’s who, the rough roads of the Ardeche and two category 1 climbs are likely to prove decisive in the outcome of the entire race.  193km long and with another five Category 2/3 climbs, this stage is where many think the serious racing will start.  The Category 1 Col de la Mure is an 8km long climb and features sections over 12%.  What’s more, the summit is just 9km from the finish line so you can be sure there’ll be a few climbers looking to breakaway for victory.

Stage 6: Rognes to Aix-en-Provence.

Aix en Provence, should be rather nice at this time of year!

This stage features the individual Time Trial which, at 27km long, is the longest TT in the Paris-Nice since 1968.  Predominantly flat, the course does have a shallow climb up the Cote de la Cride which could serve to break rhythm and punish those who go too hard too early. It’s certainly a stage for the TT specialists and a poor performance could see big names put themselves out of contention.

Stage 7: Brignoles to Biot-Sophia Antipolis.

After six days of racing this early in the season this stage is going to bring more than a few grimaces.  215.5km long and including the Category 1 Cote de Cabris and Col du Ferrier climbs this stage will require riders to expend energy carefully, especially as the stage ends with two laps of an 18km long circuit in Biot-Sophia Antipolis.  Those with some left in the tank could do well but if you’ve gone too hard too soon it’ll be time for the pain cave.

Stage 8: Nice to Nice.

City of Nice, on the French Riviera.

Relatively short at just (!) 124km, this final stage starts and finishes in Nice.  Although shorter this stage is no walk over, with two Cat. 1, two Cat. 2 and a Cat. 3 climb thrown in for good measure riders will still be able to make a name for themselves.  After the final climb, the Col d’Eze, it’s just 14km downhill to the finish so expect to see some attacks on the climb and some brave descending.  If the previous stages have left the competition open, then it will be all to play for.

So we’ve taken a look at the route, now it’s time for the riders.  The first of the Spring Classics, the Paris-Nice will be a proving ground for many teams.

Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, fresh from strong performances at the Track World Cup and experts at looking in to the middle distance.

Team Sky: Sky have made a strong start to the year, they’ve got a talented team.  From what we’ve seen so far they look pretty flexible, if one rider is having a bad day or gets out of contention they’re not afraid to put their energy behind someone as they proved with Chris Sutton at the K-B-K at the weekend.  Bradley Wiggins the TT specialist will be one to watch, after a lack lustre 2010 he’ll be out to justify his place.  Geraint Thomas, another TT specialist, will also be worth watching, not just because of the rivalry between him and Wiggins.

Only Frank will be in attendance, hopefully without the scarf.

Leopard Trek: So far they’ve not exactly justified the hype and the little scarves they wore at their launch.  Despite claiming not to be worried by the lack of results so far, Nygaard must be looking for something better than the string of placings so far provided by Daniele Bennati and Klemme’s Grand Prix victory.  According to the start lists, the only big hitters coming out to play are Jens Voigt and Frank Schleck.  Frank Schleck is generally reckoned to be a strong contender, if he chooses, but it remains to be seen if he wants to get some good racing miles in his legs this early.

Levi Leipheimer.

Radioshack: They’ve had a good start to the year; Markel Irizar scored a stage win at the Vuelta a Andalucia and team principal Leipheimer came third overall proving they’re contenders.  Although targeting the Tour of California, veteran Leipheimer will no doubt fancy his chances for a top ten finish at the very least, now he’s out of Armstrong’s shadow he’ll receive the full support of the mighty ‘Shack.

RaboBank: With Contador not daring to step foot out of Spain, Luis-Leon Sanchez must fancy his chances.  He won it in 2009 and hasn’t placed outside the top five since 2006.  If I were a betting man…

Garmin-Cervelo: The Cervelo Test Team were a favourite here at PBK towers last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how this enormously talented team goes in the first major classic.  So far they’ve been a little underwhelming given the massive expectations, but they’ve had nine victories already and their Paris-Nice squad includes Lloyd, Hesjedal and Haussler so they’re likely to be looking for a result to match the strength of their squad on paper.

Alexandre Vinokourov, winner in 2002 and 2003 will no doubt put a few attacks in, whether he has the form to make any real impact remains to be seen.

There are some other riders we think it worth keeping an eye on as well.  Matt Goss has had a phenomenal start to the year, coming second in the Tour Down Under, winning a stage of the Tour of Oman and putting in a strong performance at the Bay Classics will no doubt leave him hoping for a good ride.  Fellow Australian Richie Porte will likely have a go, he’s already started his season with the Tour Down Under so he’ll be looking to build on solid performances.

So there we go, a look at the 2011 Paris-Nice.  Who are you going to be watching?  Do you think we’ve missed anyone in particular?  Get in touch and tell us what you think by commenting below.



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