|Paris-Nice 2007 - Contenders
Frank Schleck (Team CSC) - The Luxembourger was up with the favourites in last year’s edition on the road to wins in the Amstel Gold Race and, later, atop Alpe d’Huez in the Tour, where he finished eleventh overall. The hilly parcours should suit Schleck’s abilities and he’s certainly not lacking form, having recently finished third in the Vuelta a la Comunidad Valenciana, where most Paris-Nice contenders seem to have been fine-tuning their preparation.
Frank Schleck can't believe he's won Amstel Gold 2006 photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
Ninth in 2004, seventh in 2005, fifth last year – do we see a trend here? This is a great chance for the twenty-six year old to get his ProTour campaign off to a flying start with a podium finish or, better still, a maiden Paris-Nice victory for Luxembourg. There could be a clash between him and Bobby Julich for leadership, but it's a lot more likely that two big-money heavyweight teams of pro cycling are going to duke it out for the win (see below)…
Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) - We know that both men are in good form, after victories in the Tour of California and the Vuelta a la Valenciana. Last year, compatriot Floyd Landis did the California-Nice double: why can’t Levi? There are a host of other riders on the Discovery team who could trouble the top-five of the overall: Danielson, Popovych and even Devolder – overall, they are stronger than even CSC, likely rivals for the maillot jaune. Johan Bruyneel does say that Contador is the leader, but is this a front? If Leipheimer marks his “territory” as captain with a stronger prologue performance, he should be in a more stable position to attempt to become the second American to win this race. Contador may be better-suited to the parcours, but that’s not to say that Paris-Nice is not an attainable goal for Leipheimer.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) - Second in the ProTour last year, the Basque star was sitting on the last step of the podium here in 2006 till Antonio Colom’s attack on the descent of the Col d’Eze dunked him into fourth overall by just eight seconds, though he did win the points competition. After a fine autumn campaign, Sanchez is now a bona fide star. He will be looking to show that last year wasn’t a flash in the pan with a good performance in France, though his season goals – starting with the Ardennes Classics - are be a bit further down the calendar. Still, if he’s within twenty seconds of victory in the final stage, look out for some of that trademark daredevil descending down the Col d’Eze on the last stage…
Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) - Whenever ‘Tin Tin’ races the Paris-Nice, he always seems to pull out a decent performance. Now in the twilight of his career, this is a race that Rebellin has yet to win: his best showings are second in 2004 and third the year before. The parcours look to suit an Ardennes Classics specialist and with second-place finishes in races in Portugal and Switzerland, he looks to have the condition to finish on the podium again. But is Father Time still on his side?
Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) - Showcasing his great power and condition with attacking flourishes in Het Volk and Le Samyn, it is surely only a matter of time till the twenty-four year old gets off the mark for this year, and the Race to the Sun would be a fine place to start. He’s right at home in the hills, and will be supported by a strong team including fellow young gun Thomas Lovkvist and Sandy Casar, who might also be a dangerman for the overall. Francaise des Jeux, bottom-place finishers in the ProTour for two seasons, have a real sense of menace about them for this event.
Sanchez flashes a huge grin as he celebrates another victory
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
Patxi Vila (Lampre-Fondital) - Many people were thinking “who?” when Francisco Javier Vila matched Floyd Landis on the way to a stage win in Saint-Etienne in last year’s race. However, after comfortably keeping a hold on second to the Promenade des Anglais, "Patxi" showed himself to be a handy climber, scoring top ten overall finishes in the Tour of the Basque Country and the Giro d’Italia in the following months. Lampre shouldn’t be troubled for options here, as teammate Valjavec also finished highly in Valenciana recently.
Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) - One of the hottest young properties in cycling at the moment, this fourth year pro looks set for an assault on the top-five at Paris-Nice. He can climb and time-trial, and will also have classy mountain riders like Joaquin Rodriguez and David Lopez at his disposal. Moreover, a top ten finish at the Vuelta a la Valenciana showed that he seems to be in just the right place form-wise. Still only 23, it could be a breakthrough year for Sanchez, who is likely to be harbouring aspirations for the maillot blanc in the Tour de France. If he does win, he'll be filling mighty big footsteps - the last Spaniard to do so was Miguel Indurain in 1990.
Patxi Vila smiles for the camera
Photo c. Bart Hazen http://cyclingfx.nl