Paris-Nice, or the art of decanting the season

Paris-Nice is like a good bottle of wine: it gets better with age.


Today, the race is much less traditional than it has been historically. The “Race to the Sun” is now trying to break the codes, to go and surprise where it thinks it can rest on its laurels, and even better, it pushes the riders into their entrenchments, forcing the teams involved to combine cunning and tactical aggressiveness in a completely unbridled race pattern. Paris-Nice is complex.


Every year as March approaches, a certain tension starts to build in the peloton. The big races loom on the horizon, up in Belgium, and down in Italy for the classics and then in France for the stage races. The season is just getting started and is still full of uncertainty, even more so in 2021. 


Paris-Nice is where everything was put on hold in 2020. Deprived of the Promenade des Anglais, riders and staff returned home as racing and the world at large came to a standstill. This year, Paris-Nice is where everything will come back to life. 

“I don’t know if the pandemic is definitely behind us, or even if the hardest part is over” said Juan Manuel Garate, the team’s sports director at the French race. “But one thing is certain: it’s that from now on the organizers and ourselves know how to apply all the necessary measures and precautions. We have learned to organize ourselves so that the practice of our sport remains possible and safe.”On March 7, the EF Education-NIPPO team will set down its suitcases in France, crossing a land steeped in richness and splendor.


“Paris-Nice is a race that requires being a complete rider. And this is the case of Neilson Powless who will be our leader for the general classification. He just finished 5th at the UAE Tour and proved to us that he was in good condition,” Garate said. “At the ‘Race to the Sun,’ you can’t be afraid. If you make a mistake, there is no catch-up session. A good reading of the race is also essential to avoid getting trapped in the echelon at the beginning of the week. Experienced riders such as Jens Keukeleire, Magnus Cort Nielsen and Julien El Fares will be very valuable in this area.”


There is no rest for the weary at the race this season. The third stage at the start in Gien will be short, (14.4km) but promised to a specialist in solitary effort against the clock. It will be an opportunity for the U23 European silver medalist Stefan Bissegger and the 2019 US vice-champion Neilson Powless to empty their tanks. “This TT ends with a short but steep climb,” said the Spanish DS. “We’ll have to be very careful with the bike set-up. We’re lucky for that because we have excellent equipment, but also a great asset in Stefan Bissegger. Our young Swiss rider finished second a few days ago on the time trial at the UAE Tour. We’ll have to count on him”.

Halfway through the race, the peloton will start to get seriously close to the real South of France when they arrive in Bollène (there is a real debate on the old continent as to where the South begins). In summer, the song of cicadas is usually a good indicator, but for now the temperatures are usually still too low to hear them whistle. Finally, if the questions persist, they’ll be quickly dispelled from Brignoles, a town located close from Marseille, the undisputed capital of the South. 


And this fifth stage, whose arrival will be judged in Biot, will be an excellent start before the final weekend around Nice, and the dreaded finish at the Col de la Colmiane. On this matter, Garate wants to be ready.


“What’s even more interesting on Paris-Nice, and what we will try to produce, is the mobilization of a whole collective over the last weekend, often mountainous, around a leader. The team should behave like a big team, fighting for the overall classification — while keeping in mind that stage victories are within our reach. And we must not let these opportunities slip through our fingers.”

As the peloton paces the roads to reach this now emblematic pass of Paris-Nice, they will also have a special thought for the victims who perished in Roya, Tinée and Vésubie valleys. Last October, these regions of France were devastated by severe weather and mudflows making some roads still impassable today — the most significant damages known in this region since the second World War.


Finally, the Nice stage will offer a last opportunity to the offensive riders before making some last pedal strokes on the Promenade des Anglais. “This last stage, as well as the fourth and sixth, will be very interesting and are well suited for riders like Magnus Corst Nielsen who had already won a stage on this race in 2019 or our young Daniel Arroyave,” Garate said. “We’ll see the tactics that we will adopt at that moment depending on the race’s situation.”


And no matter what the weather will be on Sunday, March 14 on “Nissa la bella,” whether it’s pouring rain or bright sunshine, the Race to the Sun always ends with a bright yellow jersey atop the podium. 


The first of the season. Enough to keep a hectare of blue sky and a few rays of sunshine in the eyes of the most ambitious.