By Daniel Benson, Cyclingnews.com
Last year’s edition of Paris-Nice was one of the most thrilling races of 2009 and the 68th edition, which begins this weekend, is poised to be just as exciting.
Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) has got his wish and will return to defend last year’s overall win. The Spaniard became the star of the 2009 ‘race to the Sun’ as he attacked to snatch victory from pre-race favourite and leader-on-the-road Alberto Contador (Astana) on the stage to Fayence. It was Contador's first and perhaps only real moment of vulnerability in an otherwise imperious season, and prompted his then-teammate Lance Armstrong to fire the first salvo in an eventual war of words as he wrote, "Amazing talent but still a lot to learn," on Twitter.
Contador will again line up for this year’s race, which will also include a strong Garmin-Transitions presence as both Christian Vande Velde and David Millar are set to start. Levi Leipheimer will lead the RadioShack charge in the absence of Armstrong, while Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is a threat to improve on a fourth-placed effort at the 2006 edition of the race.
The start list also contains a number of puncheurs, with Sylvain Chavanel – third last year – looking for another strong performance. Along with the aggressive Frenchman, Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Simon Gerrans (Sky), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Thomas Voeckler (BBox Bouygues Telecom) are all present and will surely feature in what is generally regarded as a traditional, but hard Paris-Nice route.
The race begins with a prologue around Montfort-l’Amaury. Not one for the flat time trial purists, the eight kilometre course begins on cobbles with the riders then tackling a third category climb before a relatively flat finishing section.
After a largely flat journey from Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines to Contres the peloton will ride into Limoges, where the Tour de France riders had their first rest day in 2009 and where Christophe Agnolutto (formerly of Ag2R Prevoyance) won a famous Tour stage for France after a 130-kilometre solo break.
This year, the finale in Limoges comes after two category three climbs, the last within the final fifteen kilometres.
Stage four from Saint-Junien to Aurillac looks ideally suited for a break with six categorised climbs. It also includes the finish circuit last used for the French road championships in 2007, where perennial French hope Christophe Moreau attacked on the slopes of the Côte de la Renaudie to take the win.
Stage five to Mende finishes on the plateau overlooking the town, the same approach where Laurent Jalabert won a Tour de France stage on Bastille Day in 1995, a feat repeated ten years later by Spaniard Marcos Serrano. The climb to the finish is only four kilometres long but has section as 15 per cent and could be the launch pad for a late solo attack.
The most decisive stage could be stage seven from Peynie to Tourrettes-sur-Loup. By then a pecking order will have been decided with the true overall contenders likely separated by just a handful of seconds. But being the longest stage this could blow the race apart, especially as it contains the race’s first, first category climb up the Col de Vence. Before the riders even reach the climb they have to negotiate over 170 kilometres of energy-sapping terrain that includes seven other categorised climbs.
The final stage starting and finishing in Nice could also prove important to the overall result, with three climbs - the Col de la Porte and La Turbie and the Col d’Eze – all coming before the finish.
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