The 2009 Paris-Nice race is shaping up to be Alberto Contador vs. The Field. The Spaniard, all but unbeatable in three week tours, will be looking to establish his dominance in a Paris-Nice a "mini" Tour de France that features a prologue time trial, a few flat stages for the sprinters, followed by a tough final three stages, including a category 1 mountain top finish at the end of stage 6. If Contador, who won the overall in at Paris-Nice in 2007, can convincingly win the eight day "Race to the Sun" event, he'll temporarily quell the whispers surrounding who will lead the mighty Astana team, he or 7-time TdF winner Lance Armstrong, come July and the Tour de France.
Friday, March 6, 2009
And how about that Astana line up for Paris-Nice? Yaroslav Popovych, the trusty lieutenant to Armstrong before his retirement, will ride for Contador, as will top 10 Tour de France finisher Haimer Zubeldia. Zubeldia will play a vital role for Contador during the mountain stages, and the Basque climber will work to neutralize attacks while setting up Contador for victory. Add Benjami Noval, Sergio Paulino, and the Astana team has plenty of horsepower to support Contador.
The battle for the Paris-Nice crown won't be a cake walk for Contador though, as there are a handfull of contenders who'll be hungry to defeat the Spaniard early in the season in hopes of damaging his confidence ahead of the summer Tours. Toping the list is Saxo Bank's Luxembourgian climber Frank Schleck. Schleck scored a win on the hardest stage of the Amgen Tour of California back in February, and he'll want to take the win at Paris-Nice to show that he, not younger brother Andy, is the rightful team leader of the Saxo Bank team for stage races. If he can beat Contador, Schleck will further boost his confidence, and will likely come into the Tour de France as the undisputed leader of the Saxo squad. For Paris-Nice, he'll be supported by a solid team, featuring young Nicki Sorensen, the sage and gritty Jens Voigt, and Gustav Erik Larsson. Although they have a bit less name recognition than Astana, the Saxo team is one to watch for the overall at Paris-Nice.
The Italian Liquigas team is bringing young stage racing talent Roman Kreuziger to France for the overall, and Kreuziger should begin a break out season beginning with Paris-Nice. Although only 22 years old, Kreuziger possesses talent and experience far behind his years. A former junior world champion and winner of the Tour de Swiss in 2008, Kreuziger is at most one year away from assuming a full leadership role for a Pro Tour team. 13th place overall at last year's Tour de France showed his limitless potential, and for 2009 Kreuziger will have a free hand at this year's Tour, where he'll likely co-lead the team with Vincenzo Nibali. With a top placing at Paris-Nice, Kreuziger will show beyond doubt that he is ready to move up the ranks of pro cycling, to be recognized as one of the elite stage racers in the world. And while his Liquigas team may have trouble dictating the tactics of the race, it won't matter. As long as he can follow the Astana train to the last climb, he'll be able to let his legs do the talking once Contador is finally left on his own.
Garmin's big stage racing gun Christian Vande Velde will be at Paris-Nice as well, and the Illinois native will look for a solid performance in France after being left out of the GC picture at the Amgen Tour of California. The pressure is on Vande Velde in 2009 to pick up where he left off in 2008, and a top five placing at Paris-Nice would be just what the doctor ordered to boost the 32 year old's spirits ahead of the grand tour season. He'll have great support from his Garmin squad, with work horse climbers Daniel Martin, Danny Pate, and Thomas Peterson at his disposal, as well as roulers David Millar, Bradley Wiggins and Steven Cozza. If he has good legs, there's no reason Vande Velde can't make the podium or win outright.
Olympic gold medalist Sammy Sanchez will represent the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team, and like Kreuziger he'll have to follow the Astana train and hope he has good legs in the deciding moments of the race. A feared climber capable of Contador-esque accelerations, Sanchez has never been able to sustain his form for a three week tour. Luckily though, Paris-Nice is only about a week long, and because of that Sanchez deserves consideration as a possible winner of the event.
Another Spaniard, Luis Leon Sanchez, will be in France to contest Paris-Nice, and like his countryman Sammy Sanchez, he'll be forced to play off the tactics of the bigger teams in the race. Sanchez has showed flashes of brilliance over the years, but has yet to break through at Paris-Nice. The defending Spanish time trial champion will hope that he has his climbing legs for the 67th edition of Paris-Nice, as he looks to improve on his 2007 3rd place result. Sanchez is also a very bright young star of cycling, and if the 25 year old can walk away with a win at Paris-Nice, he may find himself, and not "Don" Alejandro Valverde, who may be suspended by then (we hope), the leader of the Caisse d'Epargne team at the Tour in July.
Finally, Silence-Lotto's stage racing talent Cadel Evans. The two time runner-up at the Tour de France begins his season at Paris-Nice, and although he should be mentioned among the contenders, it is unlikely that he will be a protagonist during the eight days of racing. Evans, like Lance Armstrong, tends to prepare for the Tour de France and the Tour de France only; all other races are merely viewed as preparation for the July event. Expect Cadel to put in a respectable time trial and perhaps take a dig or two on the climbs, but in the end he'll likely be far off the general classification.
There are others that will leave the start house on Sunday that could make an impression, especially if they are on particularly good form. The most remarkable include Ag2R's Nicholas Roche, who has trained specifically for Paris-Nice, Agritubel's Christophe Moreau, who is looking to put a lack luster 2008 behind him, and Lampre's 22 year old Simon Spilak, 15th at last year's Paris-Nice, another big rising star of the sport.
The 2009 Paris-Nice race, more so than in previous years, will provide a clear indicator for the Tour de France favorites in July. With two mountain top finishes and a short time trial, the Grand Tour contenders will want to have a good showing for their confidence while the younger stars will want to upstage the big stars as a means of announcing themselves as possible July contenders. The race will likely come down to the finish atop La Montagne de Lure. Astana will surely have control of the race for most of the week, but it won't be easy. A host of solid talent will battle the Astana team for the Paris-Nice title, and early season stage racing bragging rights. At the end of the day, the smart money is on Contador to win, but that's why the do the races in the first place. You never know what could happen out on the roads.