Preview: Paris-Nice 2011

First major stage race of the season to begin this Sunday

The 69th edition of Paris-Nice kicks off this Sunday (6 March) and staff from our sister site Cyclingnews will be on hand to bring you all the action throughout the eight-stage road race.

'The race to the sun' is the first major European stage race in the calendar and will see riders tackle 1,307km over eight days, beginning in Houdan, a small village west of Paris, and finishing in Nice on 13 March.

Alberto Contador has opted not to defend his title despite having his suspension lifted, but with the likes of 2009 winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) taking part, competition is sure to be intense.

Last year's winner Alberto Contador won't be defending his title

An opening 154.5km circuit around Houdan is followed by a long journey south, with flat stages from Montfort l’Amaury to Amilly and from Cosne-sur-Loire to Nuits-Saint-Georges. Stage four runs from Crêches-sur-Saône to Belleville while stage five to Vernoux en Vivarais includes the Col de la Mure just 10km from the finish. It's a 7.6km climb that has an average gradient of 8.3 percent.

A 27km time trial makes up stage six between Rognes and the spa town of Aix-en-Provence. It includes a gradual climb and fast descent to the finish. Stage seven covers 215km from Brignoles to Biot near the coast, with the final stage heading into the hills above Nice. It's only 124km long but includes six classified climbs and dozens of twists and turns in the hills. It ends with the first category La Turbie and the Col d’Eze, before diving down to Nice to finish on the Promenade des Anglais.

Cyclingnews managing editor Daniel Benson reckons the race looks harder than ever, with more climbing and a longer time trial. "It's become a slightly less tortuous version of the Dauphine but with just as many big names on the start list," he said. "The likes of Michael Rogers, Bradley Wiggins and Franck Schleck will use the terrain for early season sparing but watch out for the likes of Tejay Van Garderen, Peter Sagan and Andrew Talanksky – part of a new generation of exciting riders."

Head over to Cyclingnews from 6 March for comprehensive coverage of all the action.

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