Despite the hoopla surrounding the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California, many of cycling's purists still see Paris-Nice as the first major stage race of the season. Now in its 67th year, the 'race to the sun' has a long and distinguished history and is the first objective for many of the peloton's stars.
After an ominous display at the Vuelta ao Algarve, 2007 champion Alberto Contador returns to the race after Astana's ban in 2008. The Spaniard will be hungry for revenge after being sidelined and can count on the support from his Astana cohorts during the race's undulating stages that litter the path to Nice. He'll have stiff competition, though, in the shape of stage race specialists, Cadel Evans and Fränk Schleck, and riders who've already had strong performances this season, like Nicholas Roche, Luis Sanchez and Rinaldo Nocentini. The Italian won a stage of this year's Tour of California and was runner-up to Rebellin last year, while David Moncoutie and Jurgen Van de Walle are two possible dark horse contenders.
As in 2008, the race starts outside Paris, in Amilly. The riders face a 9.3 kilometre individual time trial, over pancake-flat but technically demanding roads. The sprinters will then have their chance to shine over the next two stages, as the race winds southwards towards Vichy, before the first big classification shake-up on stage four to Saint-Étienne. The stage beings with two third category climbs, passing the exact place where Andreï Kivilev died in the race six years ago. The final kilometres are dotted with small climbs that should either shed the sprinters or act as springboards for daring attacks.
Stage five visits Annonay for the first time in over 50 years - not since 1952, when Louison Bobet won the race - but there will be no room for sentiment with seven categorised climbs and the 1st category Col de Benas coming mid-way through the stage. With around 90 kilometres until the finish, the climb probably won't decide the race but it could eliminate some of the contenders.
You can follow Paris-Nice in detail on Cyclingnews.com.