The historic Paris-Nice race is also called The Race to the Sun. And quite often it is. But the weather riders must go through to reach the legendary sunny coast of France’s Côte d’Azur can at times be overwhelming when this weeklong stage race moves through the heart of France toward its southern coast. A sort of mini-Tour de France, Paris-Nice often produces outstanding winners and epic racing, often won and lost by seconds.

Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton

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Take the 2016 edition as a case in point. Freezing rain and snow greeted the riders through much of the opening stages, and snow even stopped one stage midway through. But the riders broke out of the big chill in the final days, which pitted Spain’s Alberto Contador and Welsh star Geraint Thomas in tight mano a mano right to the finish on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on the final stage.

An AG2R rider climbs through the snowstorm that crippled the 2016 race.
An AG2R rider climbs through the snowstorm that crippled the 2016 race.

And this year’s eight-day race, the 75th edition, which starts this Sunday in the town of Bois-d’Arcy outside of Paris, promises to live up to all expectations set in previous years. Once again the race cuts through the heart of France, with most of the early stages favoring sprinters. As a result, an abundance of the world’s top fast men—from Norway’s Alexander Kristof and Australia’s Michael Matthews to Germany’s John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel, along with French riders Nacer Bouhanni, Bryan Coquard and Arnaud Démare—will all be on hand. But while Paris-Nice covers many of the same roads as the Tour de France in July, the spring winds are reputed for their ability to splinter the peloton, often trapping top riders behind.

And while the first five stages are generally flat, there is one glaring exception: stage 4’s uphill time trial to Mont Brouilly in the heart of the Beaujolais wine region. It was the finish here that the peloton failed to reach a year ago due to blizzard conditions, and hence the race organizers promised to return this year.

The short 14.5-kilometer time trial promises to leave its mark on the race, because the steep 3-kilometer climb to the finish will guarantee the race’s first selection. And in a race that is often won by just seconds, those hoping to win this year’s race must establish themselves here in a roughly 20-minute effort.

Often, the Paris-Nice time trial is held on the final day up the Col d’Eze on the edge of Nice, but Mont Brouilly is an unknown. And while the Col d’Eze offers 10 kilometers of climbing, the actual amount of climbing in the Beaujolais will be shorter and more intense. Punchers like Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Floors may well be able to rival better climbers, while it is unknown how time-trial specialists like Germany’s Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin will handle the pitch.

But while the first five days largely favor sprinters, the final three-day weekend along and around the Côte d’Azur promises to be explosive.

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The climbs down in southern France are unique. Steep and sinuous, they leave little room for respite and punchers can often hold their own with the pure climbers. In addition, many of the climbs are little known to the professional peloton, complicating matters even further.

The final climb to Fayence on stage 6, for example, resembles more a Belgian “muur” or “mur” as it is barely 2 kilometers long, but boasts near-10-percent grades. The following day, however, Paris-Nice riders will race into the great unknown with a stage finish on the Col de la Couillole, at 1,678 meters (5,505 feet) in altitude, it is the highest summit finish in the event’s 85-year history [it was first held in 1933]. “I climbed it once in training,” say Romain Bardet, team leader of AG2R La Mondiale, who finished second in last year’s Tour de France. “It’s a very hard climb to race in the month of March.”

Bardet is one of the big pre-race favorites and a good result here will confirm his rising status in the peloton. But the Frenchman will face confirmed specialists like two-time winners Contador and Richie Porte of Australia, as well as Denmark’s Jakob Fuglesang, Great Britain’s Simon Yates and 2011 winner, Tony Martin. [Spain’s Alejandro Valverde is a non-starter because of illness.]

Two-time winner Alberto Contador on the attack in the final kilometers of the 2016 race.
Two-time winner Alberto Contador on the attack in the final kilometers of the 2016 race.

Contador in particular will arrive hungry for victory. Not only does he want to show off his new Trek-Segafredo colors, but he is seeking revenge for his narrow four-second lose to Team Sky’s Thomas last year. In the eyes of many, however, BMC Racing’s Porte will be the rider to beat at this year’s race. Following his January victory at the Tour Down Under, he is obviously flying. And as a resident of Monaco he knows the roads of the French Riviera intimately, an advantage in a race often won by razor-thin margins.

Richie Porte on his way to winning his first Paris-Nice in 2013. He hopes to make it three this year.
Richie Porte on his way to winning his first Paris-Nice in 2013. He hopes to make it three this year.

“I’m really motivated to do well at Paris-Nice,” Porte says. “It’s my home race in Europe and I’ve won twice before, so a third win would give me a lot of confidence for the next part of the season.”

For many, Paris-Nice is the final race of the early season. But for others, The Race to the Sun is the first real bike race of the year.

Stage 1: Bois-d’Arcy–Bois-d’Arcy, 148.5km
Stage 2: Rochefort-en-Yvelines–Amilly, 195km
Stage 3: Chablis–Chalon-sur-Saône, 190km
Stage 4: Beaujeu–Mont Brouilly TT, 14.5km
Stage 5: Quincié-en-Beaujolais–Bourg-de-Péage, 199.5km
Stage 6: Aubagne–Fayence, 193.5km
Stage 7: Nice–Col de la Couillole, 177km
Stage 8: Nice–Nice, 115.5km