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Photo ©: Sirotti

66th Paris-Nice - HC

France, March 9-16, 2008

High noon in France

The showdown between UCI and ASO goes on

By Hedwig Kröner

Alberto Contador won last year but his new team Astana wasn't invited this year, leaving the Spaniard unable to defend his title
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

With just a few days to go before the start of the 66th Paris-Nice, it's difficult not to be haunted by a sense of déjà-vu, thinking of last year's run-up to the event. Like in 2007, the winner of the previous edition will not be competing in the race; but more importantly, the ongoing feud between the Grand Tour organiser ASO and the governing body of the sport, the UCI, has been drawing a huge grey cloud of the 'race to the sun', once again.

One more time, a climax in the power struggle between ASO and UCI was reached: Last year, the organiser threatened to hold the event outside of the UCI calendar, with a last-minute peace agreement settling the matter just hours before the riders left the start line. This season, ASO went through on its anti-ProTour course and received the backing of the French cycling federation (FFC), which agreed to hold the event under its national regulatory framework.

The UCI, in turn, threatened the participating teams and riders with heavy sanctions if they take the start line on Sunday, which prompted an emergency call at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Two days before the race is set to take off in Amilly, the cycling family still doesn't know under which authority the race will take place and who will eventually be participating. On the one hand, teams and riders want to take part in the event and 'do their jobs'; on the other hand, however, the governing body of the sport threatens them with fines and suspensions if they do.

Politics aside, the favourites for this year's edition after 2007 defending champion Alberto Contador, wasn't invited by organisers ASO along with the entire Astana team, include Contador's former team-mate, Luis Léon Sánchez, now riding for Caisse d'Epargne. The young Spaniard has openly declared Paris-Nice to be his first season goal this year, and we know he has the legs to do it. Sánchez won a stage in last year's edition, and finished third on General Classification in Nice. He had a promising season preparation at the Tour Down Under in Australia in January, where he finished eighth overall.

Luis León Sánchez is targetting Paris-Nice this year
Photo ©: AFP
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With a little luck, he might just be the man to beat for Italy's Davide Rebellin, who has said that the parcours of this year's race may well be a little too difficult for him. Nevertheless, the Gerolsteiner Classics specialist, who finished second to Contador last year, has experience on his side, as well as two victories already this season, having conquered the Tour du Haut Var and finishing second at the GP Lugano in Switzerland.

Another contender for this race comes from Belgium: FDJ's Philippe Gilbert showed his form was excellent by winning the Omloop Het Volk for the second time and the GP Samyn this week, after already impressing in Mallorca in February. But will the difficult parcours of Paris-Nice suit the Belgian? A stage win might be more realistic than to target the overall classification.

More pure climbers than Gilbert participating in Paris-Nice this year will (probably) be Damiano Cunego, Cadel Evans, David Moncoutié, Christophe Moreau and Oscar Pereiro, amongst others, but it is not certain they will be going for the yellow jersey, either - except for Moreau, who would love to offer his new team Agritubel the prestigious victory.

Slipstream's David Millar and CSC's Fränk Schleck also are dark horses. Millar reconnoitred the parcours up the famous Mont Ventoux twice this week, which could mean the tall Brit eyes an overall win in the 'race to the sun'. The Danish team will have Schleck at the start, who is certainly trying to polish off his shape in view of the Classics, as well as German Jens Voigt - a man no-one should ever under-estimate.

David Millar already went up the Ventoux twice this week, making him suspect of trying for the overall
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
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As for the sprints, we're looking at a reduced field this year as Quick Step's Tom Boonen opted to ride Tirreno-Adriatico instead of the French race, certainly because there are less sprint opportunities in the 2008 Paris-Nice and one of his greatest rivals, Milram's Alessandro Petacchi, is waiting to challenge him in Italy. Still, Lampre's Daniele Bennati and Crédit Agricole's Thor Hushovd should battle it out in the first two stages, with the Norwegian taking everything else "as a preparation for Milan-Sanremo."

So what about the course? The 2008 'race to the sun' has been made especially tricky by the organiser, with at most two stages prone to finish in a bunch sprint. Moreover, the ascent of the famous Mont Ventoux on stage four will make it a race of attrition, even if the mountain will be climbed from its North side (said to be a little less leg-breaking than the traditional way up from Bedoin), with the finish line relieving the riders at the ski station Mont Serein, just underneath the summit.

But even before this, applicants for the overall victory could make themselves known as soon as stage three, which features the col de la Croix de Chaubouret close to the finish in Saint Etienne. And, of course, the traditional last two week-end stages to Cannes and Nice are sure to mix up the overall ranking once again: the col de Leques, Luens, Bourigaille and Tanneron on Saturday, as well as the final loop around the Promenade des Anglais, preceded by the cols de la Porte, la Turbie and the col d'Eze on Sunday.