The "Mini Tour De France": Paris-Nice Starts Sunday

James ThompsonCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2009

For the world of European Pro Tour racing, Paris-Nice (pronounced "PAIR-ee NEECE") is the real start of the season's major stage races. Known also as the "Race to the Sun" because of the route's constant eastward direction, it is the event in which many of the Grand Tour favourites come out to test their legs against each other.

Starting in Amilly, France, slightly south of Paris, the eight-day race will feature an opening individual time trial; two days of flat, windswept roads suited to bunch sprints; and four grueling days climbing some of the famous mountains in southern France. It ends on March 15 with a circuit around the city of Nice, which is in France's southeasten corner.

Many of the biggest names in cycling will be in attendance, all looking to put in a solid result.

Astana's main captain and winner of the 2007 Paris-Nice and Tour de France, Alberto Contador, will be hungry for revenge. His team was not allowed to compete in the event last year due to disagreements with the ASO, the organization that runs Paris-Nice and the Tour. Backing him up will be one of his main lieutenants, Yaroslav Popovich, who was third overall last year.

Contador will have challengers from every corner, however. Although last year's winner, Davide Rebellin (of Team Diquigiovani), will not be attending due to his team's deciding not to participate, last year's runner-up Rinoldo Nocentini (AG2R) will certainly show up with excellent form, coming off a stage win in the Tour of California last month.

Tour de France favourite Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) has downplayed his chances by saying that it's "too early" in the year and that he wants to peak only for the Tour, but expect Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt (Saxobank) to put in strong attacks on Contador for the overall title. With so many days in the mountains, Schleck will be in his terrain and in strong condition, coming off a stage win in the Tour of California.

Sylvain Chavanel (QuickStep), wearer of the leader's jersey for several days in last year's Vuelta a Espana, will be ready to put in attacks to get a stage win, as will others like Sandy Casar (Francaise de Jeux), Maxime Monfort (Columbia), KOM classification winner in last year's Vuelta David Moncoutie (Cofidis), and Olympic Champion Sammy Sanchez (Euskatel).

Some of the upcoming stages have as many as seven to 10 categorized climbs, putting a lot of stress on the peloton. Climbs like the brutal Montagne de Lure, called Mt. Vontoux's "little sister," will test the legs of all who want a taste of overall victory.

Furthermore, unlike many races, the final classification of this race may truly not be decided until the final kilometers of the final stage. Last year, Robert Gesink, Rabobank's breakthrough young rider, was in the overall lead on the last stage. However, less than 20 kilometers from the finish line on the last stage, he had trouble navigating the treacherous descent into the city of Nice, and Davide Rebellin, who launched a death-defying attack down the descent, caught up to Gesink and passed him to take the overall victory.