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67th Paris-Nice - HIS
France, March 8-15, 2009
Contador tops list of Race to Sun contenders
By Daniel Benson
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 sporting 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. Unlike the previous two editions, the media spotlight can thankfully focus on the prospect of some enthralling racing, rather than the war of words between race organisers, ASO, and the UCI.
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.
The overall classification should come to a head on the following stage from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to La Montagne de Lure. Known as the "Ventoux Little Sister", La Montagne de Lure will host it's first ever race and the 13.8 kilometre slog up the climb is the only summit finish of Paris-Nice. But don't rule out a shock. Last year Robert Gesink seemed to have the race in the bag, before a death-defying descent from veteran David Rebellin robbed the young Dutchman of the title.
There hasn't been a French winner of Paris-Nice since Laurent Jalabert's hat-trick from 1995 to 1997. Since then the home nation has failed to produce stage racing talent, but could 2009 be different? Cyclingnews' French correspondent, Jean-François Quénet, takes a look at the French teams.
All five French teams have ridden successfully at the beginning of the year, but Paris-Nice, March 8 to 15, will be the first test of their competitiveness.
Française des Jeux: Sandy Casar, Sébastien Chavanel, Mickaël Chérel, Sébastien Joly, Mathieu Ladagnous, Christophe Le Mevel, Jérémy Roy and Jussi Veikkanen.
Française des Jeux has two captains with Sandy Casar and Jussi Veikkanen. The latter has come close to wins with ninth in the Tour Down Under, second in the Tour Méditerranéen and third in the Tour du Haut Var. On-form Mathieu Ladagnous will have some freedom to attack. Sébastien Chavanel will be their sprinter for the first two stages.
AG2R La Mondiale: José Luis Arrieta, Stéphane Goubert, Hubert Dupont, Vladimir Efimkin, Sébastien Hinault, Rinaldo Nocentini, Christophe Riblon and Nicolas Roche.
The team will clearly be riding once again for sprinter Rinaldo Nocentini. The winner of stage seven of the Tour of California finished second in Paris-Nice last year behind Davide Rebellin. Rebellin's current Diquigiovanni-Androni team isn't taking part in the 'race to the sun'.
Bbox Bouygues Telecom: Olivier Bonnaire, Cyril Gautier, Yohann Gène, Iouri Trofimov, Alexandre Pichot, Pierre Rolland, Sébastien Turgot and Thomas Voeckler.
After winning the Etoile de Bessèges and the Tour du Haut Var, also showing a persistent form in Belgium (11th in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and 14th in the Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne), Thomas Voeckler is the natural leader.
The team from Vendée also has high ambitions for their young French prodigies: European Under 23 champion Cyril Gautier and up-and-coming Pierre Rolland, who broke away on Sunday at the Clasica Almería and succumbed only with four kilometres to go. Tour de Langkawi stage seven winner Gène will also line up with great confidence.
Cofidis: Stéphane Augé, Mickaël Buffaz, Samuel Dumoulin, Amaël Moinard, David Moncoutié, Damien Monier, Rémi Pauriol and Rein Taaramäe.
After winning the GP Lugano ahead of last year's Paris-Nice winner Davide Rebellin, Pauriol is full of hopes prior to his first big goal of the year. Moncoutié, who won the uphill stage to Mont Faron at the Tour Méditerranéen, targets the mountains classification. Estonian talent Taaramäe looks to take one step higher in his career.
Agritubel: Maxime Bouet, Sylvain Calzati, Romain Feillu, Yann Huguet, Christophe Laurent, Geoffroy Lequatre, Christophe Moreau and Nicolas Vogondy.
Quite successful in the category two races recently, Agritubel will count on French champion Vogondy and the man of the come-backs Calzati for the overall classification at Paris-Nice. Offensive and fast men Feillu and Lequatre have no intention to stay silent next week.