Preview of 2012 Paris-Nice

Steven HainlenContributor IIMarch 4, 2012

Preview of 2012 Paris-Nice

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    Paris-Nice, the Race to the Sun, began in 1933 and is traditionally the first major stage race on the European calendar, and is the second WorldTour event of 2012.  Beginning in a suburb of Paris, the race features eight stages and culminates with an uphill time trial in Nice. 

    Paris-Nice is usually the first time the big hitters on the world cycling stage show their form.  The Tirreno-Adriatico (starting on Wednesday) usually attracts sprinters preparing for the spring classics, while Paris-Nice’s start-list is filled with grand tour contenders and climbers.

    The race will be determined by three stages: the first stage, a 9.4 kilometer individual time trial, stage five, featuring a summit finish on the the Cote de la Croix Neuve (the summit finish that Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador battled on for a stage win, and where Andy Schleck lost precious time in the 2010 Tour de France), and a 9.6 individual uphill time trial on the Col d'Eze on the final day.  Last year’s winner, Tony Martin, returns to defend his title, but the uphill time trial, and lack of flat time trial miles will be impediments in defending his title, and perhaps an explosive climber will be the champion of this Paris-Nice.

    Here are ten riders who will feature prominently at this year’s race.

Alejando Valverde

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    The Green Bullet began racing in January after a two-year doping suspension at the Tour Down Under, and immediately made his presence known with a stage win on top of Old Willunga Hill, finishing second overall. He followed that performance by winning one stage en route to an overall victory at the Vuelta a Andalucia.

    Valverde seems not to have lost his climbing ability, nor is he missing any of his incredibly potent sprint. Valverde will not drop too much time in the initial time trial, and has a great chance at winning the stage five summit finish.  Valverde’s largest impediment will be putting in a solid performance on the uphill time trial and managing expectations as a race favorite.  He will be supported by a Tour de France-level team, and appears poised to make an impact in, if not win the 2012 Paris-Nice.

Denis Menchov

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    As is the case every time the Silent Assassin takes the start line, no one really knows what to expect from Denis Menchov. He could contend for the top step of the podium, or he may never place better than 20th on a stage and you will never hear his name mentioned. One thing is certain, if Menchov is going to contend at this year’s Paris-Nice, he will not do so by winning the summit finish or putting in a scorching descent on stage 7, Menchov will contend by putting in great rides against the clock in both the flat and uphill time trial.

    The Russian will most likely not win a single stage, but he is perhaps the only rider who could place in the top three of each of the critical stages. Menchov will be under some pressure to produce a Russian victory for his Russian-backed global cycling project, but his major goal of the season is the Tour de France in July, so it will not be surprising if he does not start Paris-Nice in top condition. If Menchov’s name appears in the top five after stage one, it is likely he will finish on the podium. If not, then his overall finish will be below 20th place.

Rein Taaramae

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    The young Estonian rider from Cofidis has not fully lived up to the high expectations placed on him, but Paris-Nice is the type of race that he could excel in and win. Taarame’s largest fault is that he sometimes loses focus and makes mental mistakes. The fewer the critical decision moments in a race, the more likely Taarame will put in a good performance, and this year’s Paris-Nice only features three such moments.

    Taaramae is an excellent time trialist, both in the flats and uphill, so his path to victory will be to ensure that he follows the right move on the mountain stages instead of attacking at seemingly inappropriate moments, and then to put in a strong uphill time trial. Taaramae finished fourth at last year’s event, but he squandered his chance at a podium by attacking too soon on the critical mountain stage. If he can remain calm and put in his usual strong attack at the right moment, he has a good chance at winning his first major stage race.

Thomas Voeckler

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    Thomas Voeckler may be one of the most recognized and well-liked riders in the pro peloton. He endeared himself to fans with his defense of an unexpected yellow jersey at the 2004 Tour de France, and almost pulled off one of the largest upsets in Tour history last year, only losing the overall lead on the last mountain stage.

    Voeckler’s reputation is as an attacker who wins on pure will, but last year’s Tour showed that he can climb with the best in the world. Unfortunately, Voeckler will not be supported by Pierre Rolland, who escorted him over every mountain at last year’s Tour, so he will be forced to win on his own.  Voeckler is a dark horse contender for the overall win, and will be targeting stages that other contenders may not consider critical. Even if Voeckler falls out of contention, he will undoubtedly attack and attack and attack until one move sticks, and then pick up a stage win.

Simon Gerrans

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    Gerrans was one of the marquee signings of the new GreenEdge cycling team, and delivered the team’s first win with a resounding win at the 2012 Tour Down Under. GreenEdge has stated that it is unconcerned with the overall classification at this year’s Paris-Nice, instead focusing on stage wins and development towards the spring classics season, but Gerrans has never really required much support to deliver wins.

    Gerrans may be in the best shape of his life and one of the most in-form riders of the pro peloton this year, taking first place in the Australian National Road Race in addition to his Tour Down Under overall honors. He will surely be present throughout the race and make a move or two over the next week, but his major goal is to build form for the Ardennes classics in April. However, GreenEdge is a team hungry for stage wins, and Gerrans is its best chance at a win.

Luis Leon Sanchez

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    The captain for Rabobank did not have the strongest 2011 campaign, and has vowed to deliver a great 2012 season. Paris-Nice is his first major objective. The former winner of the 2009 edition of Paris-Nice comes to the race with an incredibly strong team, particularly Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, which can support Sanchez throughout the entire race.

    Sanchez is a three time Spanish national time trial champion (beating some stiff competition each year) who will perform well in the uphill time trial, as well as the flat race against the clock. The climbs of the 2012 Paris-Nice are not designed for pure climbers, but for riders who can excel at short but steep climbs, and Sanchez is exactly that kind of rider. Sanchez’s form is somewhat of an enigma, but he has the ability to take top honors at this year’s Paris-Nice.

Thomas De Gendt

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    The 25-year-old rider from Belgium had a breakthrough season in 2011, and it began by winning stage one of the 2011 Paris-Nice. The Vacansoleil rider also took a mountain stage at the Tour de Suisse, and was one of the major agitators at the Tour de France.  De Gendt has earned the respect and leadership of his team, and will be looking to score a stage win (perhaps stage seven, a mountain stage ending with a series of descents) and to place in the top ten of the general classification.

    De Gendt will have descent support, but will most likely be isolated at the critical moments of the race. Leaving Paris-Nice with a stage win will be the goal, but his best chance at victory will be in a breakaway, or by attacking from a select group. Unfortunately, both of those tactics do not carry a high percentage of success. Then again this is the rider who out climbed Andy Schleck in a mountain stage last year at the Tour de Suisse, so he clearly has the talent to win.

Frank Schleck

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    The elder Schleck is widely considered to be the protected Schleck brother and rider for Radioshack-Nissan Trek at the 2012 Paris-Nice. Frank is a more explosive climber than his brother, and he has already displayed some form in 2012. Frank was on the 2009 Paris-Nice podium in second place, and the lack of flat time trialing will favor his talents.

    Schleck’s largest obstacle will be the stage one time trial, where he must limit losses, and then make time back on the one summit finish or the final uphill time trial. However, Frank must also contend for leadership within his own team. Frank will be supported by arguably the best team in the race, featuring his brother Andy, Tour de France podium contender Andreas Kloden, Tour riders Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort, and crowd favorite Jens Voigt. If Frank puts in a poor time on stage one, perhaps Radioshack will look to Kloden or Monfort who have the potential to be in the top ten after stage one.

Bradley Wiggins

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    Wiggins’ ascent to the top of the sport has been widely publicized, but perhaps expectations were set too high. Wiggins is second or third best time trialist in the sport, and a much better climber than the other time trial centered general classification riders, however his climbing will never be on the same level as the pure climbers. But 2012 could be Wiggins' best chance at huge results. Not only does the Tour de France favor his time trialing, but Paris-Nice does as well.

    Wiggins will undoubtedly place in the top ten overall and probably in the top three, but if he is going to take the top step of the podium, he will have to put in an incredible ride on the summit finish to Mende. Ideally, Wiggins will use his incredibly strong and deep Team Sky to effectively neutralize the climbing on the mountain stages. If Sky can control the race and make the climbs slow and methodical instead of explosive, then Wiggins has a great chance of taking overall victory.

Tony Martin

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    2012 saw Tony Martin emphatically surpass Fabian Cancellara as the best time trialists in the world. Martin won every single major time trial he contested in 2011, while winning overall honors at Volta ao Algrave, the Tour of Bejing, and Paris-Nice. This year’s Paris-Nice features less time trialing kilometers than last year’s race, and half of those kilometers are uphill, which hurts Martin’s chances, but do not discount the young German’s chance at repeating.

    Martin will most likely win the initial time trial, and he is a decent enough climber to not drop significant time on the summit finish to Mende. He will be supported by a strong Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, in particular Levi Leipheimer and Sylvain Chavanel. Martin’s chance at defending his 2011 crown will be determined on the final day’s uphill time trial. If Martin can get into a rhythm and use his incredible engine uphill as effectively as he can in the flats, Martin is the odds-on favorite to win the 2012 Paris-Nice. 

Conclusion and Prediction

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    Omega Pharma-Quickstep and Team Sky will jointly control the race, specifically on the climbs, and preventing any of the pure climbers from escaping and gaining significant time.  The race will be between Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins, specifically whether Martin can put enough time into Wiggins in the flats to make up for the seconds we will lose in the uphill time trial.  My prediction:

    1)  Tony Martin repeats in a race that is won by less than 15 seconds

    2)  Bradley Wiggins falls just short, but puts the other contenders for the Tour on notice

    3)  Alejandro Valverde is not in the same class of time trialists as the top two spots on the podium