The Rouleur team will be spending hours each week poring over form guides, weather forecasts and stages profiles, all in an inevitably fruitless attempt to give themselves some sort of edge over their rivals.
We were going to keep it to the one-day classics and Grand Tours but a certain inconsiderate global pandemic has rather put the kibosh on those plans. Stepping up to substitute for Strade Bianche this weekend is Paris-Nice – the Race to the Sun.
Our old adversary, the Cycling Mole, is once again on hand to rain on our parades, taking us to task and mercilessly mocking our selections.
This isn’t where we wanted to be, but it’s bike racing in March, so let’s make the best of it, eh?
Paris-Nice 2020 – Stage 1: Plaisir to Plaisir (154km)
What do you mean the map is worse than useless? What do we look like, cartographers? If you want a better route we advise you head to Pro Cycling Stats where you’ll find one that you can actually see. For the colourblind, the stage starts in Plaisir (translation: pleasure. We didn’t even have to Google translate it. That’s GCSE French for you) and ends in the same Parisian suburb. Close enough.
Far from just an out and back, the stage is packed with twists and turns over its almost 100 miles. Lumpy at best, on paper it should come down a sprint finish. However a 1400 metre climb, 5km from the finish, which includes a steep section of pavé, could serve as a springboard for the punchy opportunist who fancies a spell in yellow.
With the decision of several WorldTour teams to withdraw, the startlist – still subject to change at this stage – is much diminished. The cancellation/postponement of Strade Bianche, Tirreno Adriatico and Milan-Sanremo, however, has meant those teams which are lining up are likely to be somewhat stronger than they otherwise would have been. The riders who had been due to head to Tuscany and who have diverted to not-Paris include: Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe, Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels, Rouleur columnist Romain Bardet (also AG2R); Vincenzo Nibali of Trek-Segafredo and Lotto-Soudal’s Philippe Gilbert. We wouldn’t have wished these circumstances to arise but there are some serious racers among that lot.
The stage: Sam Bennett – Deceuinck-Quick Step
It’s a fast finish and he’ll be highly motivated and looking to get one over on the Bora-Hansgrohe duo of Sagan and Ackermann.
General Classification: Julian Alaphilippe – Deceuninck-Quick Step
As good a chance as he will ever get now the GC hitters are staying home. He will know that too so will have extra motivation.
The Stage: Kasper Asgreen – Deceuninck-Quick Step
The only preview information I’ve had time to read is that there is a cobbled climb near the end, so I’m going for KBK winner Kasper Asgreen to win again and Deceunink to have another blistering start to the year.
General Classification: Sergio Higuita – EF Pro Cycling
Even with a reduced field, the overall at Paris-Nice has a high quality batch of experienced contenders who could all really do with winning a stage race. Despite their urgency, I think that the likes of Quintana, Nibali, Bardet, Pinot and Porte will spend too long watching each other while Sergio Higuita strikes another blow for the next generation and the changing of the guard.
The stage: Peter Sagan – Bora-Hansgrohe
I’ve doubts over his sharpness given his time away training, but this still looks like a finish well suited to Bora’s frontman
General classification: Richie Porte – Trek-Segafredo
Coronavirus! Just kidding – though frankly, it’s no laughing matter and I will be surprised to see the race make it all the way to Nice without cancellation. Why not Richie Porte? the mid race TT suits him, he’s in good form and racing in his backyard.
The stage: Elia Viviani – Cofidis
With a downhill finish, it’s going to be a quick one. As for who has the legs with so few case studies to work with, well my money is on Elia Viviani.
General Classification: Nairo Quintana – Arkea-Samsic
There are lots of folks with something to prove on the start list, but I think the man with the plan – and a new lease of life by the looks of it – is Nairo Quintana. New team, new goals, new smile.
The stage: Caleb Ewan – Lotto-Soudal
Tempted to take a punt on a puncheur but in the end have decided to play it safe. I don’t think this finish is going to be tough enough to prevent Lotto-Soudal from keeping it together – particularly with the extra rider at their disposal. As the most consistent of the sprinters so far this season, Caleb Ewan has the swagger of someone who’s going to collect his third win of 2020.
General Classification: Max Schachmann – Bora-Hansgrohe
I wouldn’t go so far as to call them opportunists, but with the strength of the team they’re taking, Bora do rather seem to be taking this Coronavirus business in their stride. I came close to saying Quintana, because I’ve been enjoying the new-old Quintana we’ve seen this season but I think the weaker squad will cost him and Schachmann will be well placed to take advantage.
The Cycling Mole’s verdict:
The peloton roll into France for the 78th edition of Paris-Nice, the race to the sun. As always the weather will play a big part in the outcome of the race, with strong winds forecast for the opening three stages. The winner of the race will have to cope with echelons, be able to post a decent TT, and also deal with the mountains.
Andy M has decided to go with Richie Porte, at last, a pick I can mock! Richie is here to ride in the service of Vincenzo Nibali, he isn’t targeting GC. Andy should really pay more attention. Nick’s gone with Schachmann, who’s fresh from finishing 2nd in the Algarve. A lot of people will be fooled into going with the German, but his record in one-week stage races, that contain mountains, is a very poor one.
His best result is 10th and that came in the Tour of California, I simply can’t see him surviving the big mountain day. Miles and Andy H are going with two good picks, Quintana and Alaphilippe. The Colombian has already won two stages and two GC titles in 2020, he seems back to his very best. Alaphilippe is the home favourite, the TT takes place in his hometown. On paper, this is a wonderful route for him, but recent form hasn’t been great, and he was recently ill.
In reality, this should be a fight between three riders: Quintana, Pinot and Alaphilippe. I’ll put his recent form to one side and go with Julian Alaphilippe.
Take one look at the profile and you’ll think it’s going to be a sprint, but my job is to take a closer look. A day spent out in the countryside west of Paris, with rain and a strong wind predicted. In recent years we’ve seen the opening stage turn into a GC day, and I see it happening again. The stage might be short, but we have lots of crosswinds, and thanks to the Corona virus, a start list full of classics specialists.
Right at the end of the stage we have a cat 3 climb, which looks nice and straightforward, until you dig deeper and see that the final 400m is on cobbles and averages 9%. Not only that, but the road is incredible narrow and begs to be attacked. From the crest, there is just 4km left, most of this is downhill and with a tailwind. There is no chance this stage ends in a big bunch sprint, but the good people at Rouleur don’t seem to agree.
Miles has gone with Viviani; I’ve got a better chance of winning this stage. The Italian is finding out that life away from QuickStep is tough and I don’t see him suddenly finding form and winning this tough stage. Andy H and Nick have gone with two of the big sprinters, Bennett and Ewan. If it does come down to a sprint, these are the two obvious picks, but I just don’t see it happening. Both are good at climbing, but holding the race together in the closing kilometres will be almost impossible.
Andy M originally picked Magnus Cort, a rider who isn’t on the provisional start list, but plumped for the more respectable pick of Peter Sagan, when given a second bite of the cherry. Finally we have Ben, who got the memo. After seeing the cobbled climb, he’s sided with Kasper Asgreen, did I mention I had him at 33/1 on Sunday? Problem is, I see him working for his team leaders in this stage and not chasing personal results. Ben has got the right idea, but the wrong rider. I find it bizarre that no one has decided to go for Alaphilippe, Stuyven, Bol, Ackermann, Štybar…
Given the weather conditions I think this stage will be blown to pieces, with many GC riders losing big time. When deciding on the winner, you have to select a rider who has a strong team, can ride in the wind, and can cope with the cobbled climb. After riding like a dream during the opening weekend, this is a stage for Jasper Stuyven. The talented Belgian ticks all the boxes and is flying just now.