Among the 168 riders at the start of the 72nd edition of Paris-Nice on Saturday morning, bib number one will be on the back of Geraint Thomas, the leader of Team Sky after the withdrawal of title-holder Richie Porte. But the wide open course this year makes anything possible for Sylvain Chavanel, ready to battle it out against Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay Van Garderen or Rui Costa…
Portal - Geraint is a true leader
Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal insisted Geraint Thomas, who replaces title-holder Richie Porte as the team leader for Paris-Nice, was by no means a second choice.
"From the start we had decided that Richie and Geraint would be joint leaders and that the race would decide between them," he said.
"Geraint was very close at the Tour Down Under and again at la Ruta del Sol. He's in splendid form and the course suits him perfectly. The finale in Fayence and the other climbs on the course like Mont Brouilly should suit his explosiveness and I cannot see him losing time," the French team director said.
Porte was finally entered in Tirreno-Adriatico to replace injured Tour de France champion Chris Froome and Portal said it was important for Team Sky to have a potential wine in every ProTour race.
While the Paris-Nice course, without a time trial or major climb, should account for a wide open race, Portal said it was also making teams nervous.
"When you have a big time trial or a long climb, it's easy. You know that the stronger man wins. It’s not the case this time. Paris-Nice is often like a classic everyday and tactically, it makes things more tricky and teams more nervous," he said.
Chavanel wants to do even better this year
Sylvain Chavanel has always loved Paris-Nice and the Frenchman has kept improving in the Race to the Sun, winning the green jersey last year after finishing third in 2009 while clinching three stages between 2008 and 2013.
"I want to be in the front. I have a nice history with Paris-Nice with several Top 10 finishes, one podium. Last year I rode a great Paris-Nice and my goal is to do at least as well this year," said the Frenchman who moved from Omega Quick Step to Swiss team IAM in the mid-season.
The course, without any time trial or mountain finish this year, seems to suit his all-round abilities, but the former French champion made it clear he feared the main ascent of the week, the winding and steep Mont Brouilly in the 4th stage to Belleville.
"On paper, the course suits me perfectly even though a time trial would have given me a little bit of an edge before the Mont Brouilly, which is very step with passage at 27 percent," he said.
"In any case, it's Paris-Nice, it's the first big date of the season and every team has a man capable of winning it. I've rode it enough to know that every kilometer counts and that you need to stay cautious from start to finish," he said.
Welcoming the fine weather forecast all week, Chavanel reminded that he always improved as the week unfolds.
"I always feel at my best in the last weekend of Paris-Nice. I don't know why, but that's he case. In any case it's going to be a race which will be decided by a few seconds" he warned.
Pineau doesn’t see any clear favourite
It was the aim of the organisers to make this year’s Paris-Nice a wide open race and it will be the case according to IAM’s Jerome Pineau, one of the experienced riders of the peloton.
“The course can make it wide open but it depends on us riders to make it exciting,” the Frenchman said.
“Some teams with strong finishers could keep the race locked and make it boring. But the main news, apart from the course is the absence of Richie Porte for Sky had controlled the race in the previous years which will not be the case this year,” he said
“If (Sky team leader) Geraint Thomas is a favourite, then I’m a favourite too,” he added, before reviewing the best prospects in this year’s Race to the Sun.
“From the early season race, (Vincenzo) Nibali is doing alright but he’s not at the top yet. As for Rui Costa, he did not arch-dominate in Algarve. To me Sylvain (Chavanel) is as much of a favourite as they are,” he said.
But Sylvain Chavanel, sitting next to him, reminded him of other contenders to take into account.
“Tejay van Garderen will be there, but Simon Gerrans is one of the other riders the course should favour,” he said.
Arthur Vichot - "Some nice stages for me"
Weakened by a virus a few weeks ago, the FDJ team leader, who will also work for Nacer Bouhanni in the mass sprints, is expecting to shine in the second half of the race.
"I don't really know where I stand, but I had a good winter before being hampered by a gastroenteritis which forced me out of the Tour du Haut Var. I felt much better last week in Ardeche and the Drome Classic. In the same time the Paris-Nice course is interesting. The profile of some stages like the one to Belleville should suit me. I first opted for a different program but I changed my mind after I saw there were quite a few nice stages for me here. Then again, everybody says it's a wide open race but there are some really great riders like Nibali or Costa, who will certainly be at the front."