We pick out the likely contenders for the 2014 edition of Paris-Nice (March 9-16)
In recent years, the increasingly mountainous nature of the Tirreno-Adriatico has seen more big name grand tour riders opt for Italy rather than France for their first stage race of spring.
This year the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador will also be absent from Paris-Nice as they will be at Tirreno, as well as sprinters Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan.
Defending champion Richie Porte was a late withdrawal from Paris-Nice after switching to ride Tirreno due to a Sky reshuffle after Chris Froome was diagnosed with a back injury.
But that’s not to say Paris-Nice doesn’t still boast a competitive line-up, and could still – like it did in 2007 and 2012 – produce this year’s Tour de France winner.
Vincenzo Nibali, Astana
The biggest name rider to opt for Paris-Nice over the Tirreno is, ironically, an Italian. Nibali has yet to find form this season and could only manage 12th overall at the Tour of Oman, but his adventurous mindset, speedy descending and tactical nous make him well-suited to the course, even in the absence of a mountain top finish.
Tejay van Garderen, BMC – NB: withdrew on opening stage due to illness
The American began his season in scintillating form, finishing second at the Tour of Oman behind Chris Froome. Van Garderen enjoyed a lot of success on home roads last season, winning both the Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, but will he hoping to claim a first European stage race title at Paris-Nice.
Rui Costa, Lampre-Merida
The world champion is one of the canniest riders in the peloton, and could flourish in such an unpredictable course. Adorned in the rainbow jersey, he’ll find it harder to keep the low profile that helped him win the world championships last year, but he still possesses the legs and the brain to win.
Carlos Betancur, Ag2r
The Colombian has already won the Tour du Haut Var this season, and will be difficult to contain on the many hills in the second half of Paris-Nice. Stage five’s finish in Fayence looks particularly suited to him.
Sylvain Chavanel, IAM Cycling
Three stage wins and three top 10 finishes prove Chavanel’s credentials in this race, and the lack of huge mountains this year ought to suit him. And he’s not the only aggressive French rider present who could pull off a win on home soil: Romain Bardet (Ag2r) and Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ) both have good form, while Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) is well-suited.
The Schlecks, Trek
Andy still looked miles away from his best form at the Tour of Oman, while Frank is still finding his legs following a one year drugs ban. Neither is likely to make an impact at Paris-Nice.
Ones to Watch
Simon Gerrans, Orica-GreenEdge
Having won the Tour Down Under in January, Gerrans goes into Paris-Nice defending his lead in the UCI World Tour. The hilly profile will provide him with plenty of chances to add to the three wins he’s already achieved this year.
Bryan Coquard, Europcar
At just 21 years old, Coquard remains a precocious talent, but Paris-Nice could be his major breakthrough race. At the Etoile de Besseges last month he got the better of Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) to win two stages, and these two sprinters – along with Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) – will be his man rivals in the opening three stages.
Tom Boonen, Omega Pharma-QuickStep
Aside from his success at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, his rides in the Middle-East last month suggest that Boonen may be keen to involve himself in bunch sprints once more. We’ll learn more of how committed his pursuit of sprint wins is in the more chaotic atmosphere of the Paris-Nice bunch sprints.