Thursday, March 1, 2012

2012 Paris-Nice and Montepaschi Strade Bianche: Races of the Uncertain

There is much to look forward to as we approach the 2012 Paris-Nice: the beauty of south of France, the first of Graham Watson's pictures of the French countryside, and one of the first clashes between GC pretenders and classics warriors. See, Paris-Nice is just short and sweet enough that they have to seriously contend with each other, lest a classic warrior steal the overall from a GC contender.

A bit further east, Montepaschi Strade Bianche has established itself as a top race with top contenders making for an exciting race. Similarly to Paris-Nice, it is a race where cobbled warriors and Ardennes pocket rockets contend for the same prize.

Photo credit Luca Violetto. Under CC-SA 2.0 license
We like these two races as they provide clashes between types of riders who usually do not directly race against each other. Conversely, these races make for good indicators of intentions of riders. We highlight several cases: that of Philippe Gilbert (will he be able to repeat or improve on 2011?), Tony Martin (will he try to be a grand tour contender?), Damiano Cunego (will he give up trying to be a grand tour contender?), Vicenzo Nibali (will he try to escape Ivan Basso's shadow?), and Alejandro Valverde (will he be a credible grand tour contender again?).

Here are our thoughts for the two races of this coming weekend and these uncertain riders.

Saturday's Montepaschi Strade Bianche

Since its founding only a few years ago, Montepaschi Strade Bianche has transformed itself to be an important race. Initially run in October, it found its place in March, perhaps increasing its value as a preparation race for the spring classics. It is an interesting mix of steep-but-short climbs, white gravel (hence the name) and more than a few screaming descents on them. Thus, it makes for good test of form both for cobbled warriors and Ardennes pocket rockets.

Every edition has featured great racing: its defending champion Philippe Gilbert - and his new Team BMC - are certainly expected to prove that his 2011 season was no fluke. What is more interesting to us, however, are the lists of top finishers in the last few editions. The 2011 podium included now-teammate Alessandro Ballan and Lampre-ISD's Damiano Cunego. Farnese Vini's Giovanni Visconti and BMC's Greg van Avermaet are also there. Dare we say that Team BMC will be keen to win a race this Saturday? They are even bringing Cadel Evans, who won the epic Stage 7 of the 2010 Giro d'Italia run over these very roads, out-sprinting Alexandr Vinokourov and Damiano Cunego. It is a pity that Cunego is not on the start list of this race. Last year he did both Montepaschi and Paris-Nice, and this year he preferred the latter.

Another rider from an Italian team that we are keen to watch is Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale. He blitzed to one victory in the Tour of Oman, and very good performance throughput his Gulf of Arabia campaign. He faltered quite badly in the climbs of the Tour of Oman though, but one has to wonder if a controlled race may see him take advantage of the situation. We don't think that Liquigas-Cannondale is keen to have a controlled race, however, given that Vicenzo Nibali is riding for the first time, and he's hot off a win in Oman.

On to Sunday's Start to Paris-Nice

Paris-Nice's Stage 3 to Le Lac de Vassivière and Stage 4 to Rodez have series of hills culminating in uphill finishes that is perfect for those who dare to try in Milano-Sanremo and the Ardennes classics. The queen Stage 5 to Montée Laurent Jalabert is sure to be a good test of legs: it culminates in a Cat 1 climb named after many-time winner of Paris-Nice. And by golly, the organizers even saw fit to put Stage 6 to Sisteron with punchy climbs leading to a gently downhill finish. Finally, just before the final TT we are treated to Stage 7 to Nice, which climbs the Sisteron and finishes after a daredevil of a descent to the suburb of Nice. It should make for an exciting mortal combat down to the shores of Côte d'Azur!

Finally, the ITT up Col d'Eze makes a comeback to this race. It was removed partly because of its dominating effect on the GC: many of Sean Kelly's victories were sealed on this final stage.

More seriously though, who are the contenders we are vying for?

Defending champion Tony Martin of OmegaPharma-QuickStep is an obvious GC contender, with weeklong stage races being his specialty. This season is a very important one for Martin as he has to answer the question: does he want to find out whether he has it in him to contend in the grand tours?

With strong TT and week-long stage race performances, dreaming of multi-week grand tours is a dream which pursue has shattered many careers. Doing so requires that one sacrifice the early part of the season. He has shown that he can win a TT at the end of a Grant Tour, but for Martin to be a GC contender requires significant reduction in weight. He's certainly no clydesdale, but don't forget what kind of diet Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins has put himself through this past winter. We engaged in "sideways-profile gazing" -- a sport invented by fans and commentators to gauge Jan Ullrich's readiness (and most importantly winter weight gain) in the early season back when he was riding -- but we have not been able to conclusively evaluate the kind of diet Martin has put himself through. Anyway, the final ITT up Col d'Eze will be a severe test of Tony Martin's resolve.

Martin may be a bit shaken after losing the final TT of Volta ao Algarve to Wiggins and the overall title to Team Sky's Richie Porte, but to be fair he had done more than his fair share the day before in order to ensure teammate Gerald Ciolek's win.

On the other hand, Star Tom Boonen has limited chances in this edition of Paris-Nice, what with so few flat stages that this is more a training race than one for showcasing his form. But fear not, Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel is always a good bet for this early race, and he has shown that he has good legs.

Unfortunately for French team Europcar, the same cannot be said for their stars Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland. Last year we witness a resurgence of Voeckler starting from his ride in Tour du Méd and Tour du Haut Var. This year we saw both riders falter in Tour du Haut Var and last weekend's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The season is still long, and both riders may be peaking later intentionally, to his own team's chagrin. In fact, Pierre Rolland has just been taken off the Paris-Nice start list.

We think that the real GC challenge will come from Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky (Fresh off a win in Volta ao Algarve against Martin), Janez Brajkovič of Astana and Andreas Klöden of Leopard-Trek, and Rein Taaramäe of Cofidis. The ITT up Col d'Eze looms over all who dare dream of GC glory in this year's edition of Paris-Nice.

Teammates Porte is both in shape and eager to win, plus Wiggins have put himself through a strict diet this past winter and we think he will win the Col d'Eze ITT and seal overall victory.

Only a few years ago Brajkovič had put in an amazing turn in the 2006 Vuelta a España and the 2010 Le Dauphiné after winning the Ventoux uphill ITT. And Andreas Klöden - a former winner back in 2001 - seems to have found a niche for himself in Bruyneel's squad. The thing is, between the two of them, their period between peaks seem to span years. It's hard to determine whether they'll do well or if they'll have a full-on bust.

On the other hand, Taaramäe's improvement has been steady. He was best young rider in last year's Paris-Nice and was 11th on the Tour de France GC. He contended for the best young rider classification in that Tour de France, too, but a magical Pierre Roland and Team Europcar was perhaps too much for him. This year he'll have Rémy Di Gregorio as a teammate instead of as a stage-hunter on a rival team. Between the two of them, we have high hopes for Cofidis.

Speaking of stage hunters, last year we saw Garmin-Barracuda's Heinrich Haussler win the points jersey in Paris-Nice without a stage win. This year's stages are a bit tougher than last year's - we think it suits Haussler as a stage hunter better. The 2009 season saw him net good placings in field sprints following successful breakaways. He's not merely an opportunist, and he has stamina for profiles the like of Stages 3 and 4.

Lampre-ISD's Damiano Cunego is also keen to do well on these roads, and assuming that he is serious about focusing on the spring classics, he will put on a good fight. In fact, we'll go as far as saying that he's our favorite for Saturday, coming off a strong second at GP Lugano last weekend. We think that he'll want stage wins rather than GC, but so does young teammate Diego Ulissi. On to opposing teams, so does the newly-returned Alejandro Valverde of Movistar. His return has cast a dark shadow, even if riding style is exciting to watch. He has flaunted his improved TT abilities, and if he does well on Col d'Eze, all eyes will be on him as he contends the stage races.

Finally, given the dearth of flat stages, it may be a long shot but we'd love to see FdJ-BigMat field proper trains for their sprinters Jani Hutarovich and young phenom Arnaud Démare. They finished 2nd and 4th in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Démare won GP Le Samyn charismatically just last Wednesday. We think this 20-year old U-23 world champ has a very bright future, although he is conspicuously absent the start list. Could he be after later races, or is he focusing on sprinting opportunities instead?

What do you look forward to in this year's Paris-Nice? Do you think that Tony Martin will attempt to turn himself into a Grand Tour contender, and will Bradley Wiggins overhaul Martin on the slopes of Col d'Eze to win Paris-Nice?


  1. Didn't Brakovic move to Astana after Radioshack merged with Leopard?

  2. Hey Coach B, you are absolutely right and I stand corrected. Thanks!

  3. I think you picked most of the right contenders for Paris Nice -- Wiggins, Porte, Jani B, Martin. Another big name in with a chance is Levi Leipheimer, along with countryman Tejay Van Garderen.