90 years of Paris-Nice: why the Race to the Sun is still key to success in the Tour de France

Reflections on France's second most important race and its 90-year-history

It was March 1998 and it was freezing at the top of the Col de la République. As the wind picked up, the snow flurries were thickening. 

The shabby city below the wooded mountain climb, St Etienne, romantic because of past glories — its faltering football team, a once flourishing industrial centre and an eponymous British band from south London — had seen better days.

Although none of us, huddling together in the finish-line blizzard, fully realised it at the time, so had Paris-Nice. 

The 'Race to the Sun' was about to witness the crowning of a young prince, the 'phenonemal' Frank 'Van Den Broucke' (as the race called him), who emerged through the sub-zero whiteout to win the key mountain stage in that year's race.

But there was something else we didn't fully realise. 

That year's Paris-Nice was an illusion, a roll call of malpractice that came to a head with the explosive revelations of that summer's Festina Affair. If that humiliating doping scandal was bad for the Tour de France and very bad for French teams, it also spelt the deathknell for Paris-Nice's creaking traditions. 

Frank Vandenbroucke 1998 Paris-Nice

Frank Vandenbroucke emerges through the gloom on the Col de la République at the 1998 Paris-Nice (Getty Images)

Within two years, the Leuillot family, owners of Monde Six, the race's longstanding organisers, had sold the race to the recently retired Laurent Fignon, who was already promoter of lesser-known events. 

But post-Festina, France had turned its back on road racing and, despite all its status and longevity, ownership of the nation's second biggest stage race had become a poisoned chalice. 

Fignon was soon strapped for cash, beset by a financial crisis and battling against the negative image of the sport, scrambling around for sponsors for the intermediate sprints and the mountain primes. Some joked that 100 French francs was enough to get your name on the white leader's jersey.  

Inevitably, ASO, promoters of the Tour de France, swooped to take the race from Fignon. It was a deal that saved Paris-Nice from going the same way as the now-extinct Midi Libre, but it also homogenised one of the most beautiful and idiosyncratic races of the calendar, for so long a deep-dive, for better or worse, into old-school French cycling culture. 

The leader's jersey, worn by Vandenbroucke and before him, Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly, and Miguel Indurain morphed from signature white, to the less distinctive yellow of ASO races. 

The Republique, Mont Faron, the Tanneron, Chalet Reynard, renowned climbs of previous editions of the Race to the Sun, were slowly eradicated as ASO's no-nonsense pragmatism took over. 

The race, beloved of Jean Leuillot, patriarch of the Monde Six clan, which had also had Jacques Anquetil as race director for almost two decades, survived the storm, but there was no doubt that something had been lost.

A changing race

Paris-Nice has long been a reflection of trends in the professional peloton, from its status as an early-season barometer of form, to daringly innovative stages outside mainland France, a prize for the best descender, invitations to Japanese teams and the first use of the UCI's infamous and controversial hematocrit test. 

The Course au Soleil was first run 90 years ago, in 1933. The inaugural race was notable for the 312 kilometre stage from Paris to Dijon, which remains the longest-ever stage in the history of the event. A peloton of 149 riders started at Cafe Rozes on the Place d'Italie, at 5am, in the darkness of a winter morning. 

Six days later, just 66 riders from the 149 made it to Nice where the race was won by Alphonse Schepers. His leader's jersey was blue with a band of gold, the colours of the Mediterranean sea and the sunlight of the Cote d'Azur.

But the capricious nature of the French winter has always cast a long shadow. The 1939 race, shadowed by the looming threat of war, was also marked by a vicious stage that would definitely fail the rigours of the current extreme weather protocol. 

Sixty-seven riders abandoned the snowbound 233km stage from Nevers to St Etienne, through the Monts du Forez, in what Roger Lapebie, who took refuge in a farmhouse, described as a 'white hell'.

The cold and snow followed the convoy to the Cote d'Azur, where just 19 riders arrived in Nice. Hour Record holder Maurice Archambaud took the overall classification by almost 10 minutes. 

As France recovered from the horrors of WWII, Paris-Nice tentatively re-emerged. There was some tinkering, with style and format. The leaders jersey went green, briefly, then yellow, and the name also changed to Paris-Cote d'Azur. 

In 1955, the leader's jersey finally settled on being white, but four years later, the name changed yet again to Paris-Nice-Rome, with a parcours that took in 12 stages, including finishes in Florence and Siena. 

The 1963 edition took another detour, with a single stage in Corsica, from Ajaccio to Bastia, via the Col de Vizzavona and the Col de Teghine. Three stages in Corsica followed in 1964, including a 34km time trial, won by Rudi Altig. 

Paris-Nice 1968

Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, Charlie Grosskost, Eddy Merckx, and Rik Van Loy line-up for the 1968 Paris-Nice (Getty Images)

Simpson's hard-fought win in the Race to the Sun came in the year of his death, 1967. Two years later, in 1969, Eddy Merckx, the emerging champion who'd played domestique to the British rider, used Paris-Nice as the platform for a Pogačar-esque period of racing.

Merckx took wins in Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de France itself. The Belgian achieved similar heights, following victory in Nice, in 1970 and 1971, that heralded further wins in the Tour de France. 

In the past then, victory in the French race did often seem to point towards success in July. Since 2003, six Race to the Sun champions have also won the Tour de France — insert asterisk here alongside the name of Floyd Landis — while from Tirreno-Adriatico winners during that period, four have claimed a yellow jersey in Paris in July.

Eyes on July

The ebb and flow of debate over which of the two races — the Race to the Sun or the Race Between Two Seas — makes the better preparation for Milan-San Remo is also unresolved. With both races now ending on the same date, allowing the same length of recovery before the showdown on the Poggio, that uncertainty continues.

It's almost certainly true though, that if you are targeting the Tour, also run by ASO, Paris-Nice is the best rehearsal, while Tirreno, staged by rival promoters RCS, suits pre-Giro prep that much better. 

Tadej Pogačar, emphatic winner of this year's Paris-Nice, joins a roll call of winners that is both illustrious and sometimes quirky. Many champions have gone on to great success elsewhere; a few others meanwhile have hit the skids soon afterwards. 

Landis of course, went on to achieve infamy in the 2006 Tour de France. But remember Dario Frigo? Or Carlos Betancur? How about Jean-Pierre Munch?  

Pogačar meanwhile is unlikely to be disappearing any time soon. Defeat to Jonas Vingegaard in the 2022 Tour appears to have fuelled his ambition and hardened the Slovenian's resolve, as vividly evidenced in the climbing stages of this year's Race to the Sun, which he utterly dominated.

After the final stage of this year's race, warm weekend sunshine gave way to a golden twilight on the Côte d'Azur and the Promenade des Anglais opened up again to Nice's evening traffic, but at least Vingegaard knew the size of the task ahead of him if he is to successfully defend his yellow jersey in July.

David Gaudu Paris-Nice

David Gaudu has made an impressive start to 2023 (Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

David Gaudu meanwhile, second overall, could reflect on the best result in Paris-Nice from a Frenchman in over 20 years. The 26-year-old was 'best of the rest' in a race in which Pogačar, unchained, was at times unstoppable. 

Gaudu knows too, from his time riding as lieutenant to Groupama FDJ team-mate, Thibaut Pinot, what lies in wait for him this summer. Paris-Nice, as it has done for so many decades, has banished winter, ushered in the spring and fuelled all their dreams of summer success. 

Now we have to wait and see. 

*Jeremy Whittle is Tour de France correspondent to The Guardian and author of Ventoux: sacrifice and suffering on the Giant of Provence.

Cover image by James Startt

Shop now