The proximity of certain WorldTour races can give one a greater sense of prestige than another, depending on the start list.
Last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, for instance, attracted the world’s best stage racers, while the Tour de Suisse, which began a week later, offered Rui Costa (Lampre Merida) as the headline act and his chances of a third consecutive victory as the greatest point of interest.
Judged by its start list, this season’s Paris-Nice looks like the poor relation to Tirreno-Adriatico, which can claim Contador, Froome, Nibali, and Quintana among its participants, but the French race offers a youthful line-up likely to supply an intriguing counterpoint to its Italian rival.
Last season, Carlos Betancur, Ag2r-La Mondiale’s errant Colombian, emerged as overall victor after back-to-back wins on stages five and six to relieve Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) of the leader’s jersey, and a third place on stage seven that ended the Welshman’s hope of reclaiming it.
Will this year’s 73rd edition of the 'Race to the Sun', which starts on Sunday with a 6.7km prologue in Maurepas, again serve as a shop window for the talents likely to contest Grand Tour victories when Froome, Contador and Nibali et al have hung up their wheels?
Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), are among the first rank of young GC hopefuls present on the start list for the second event on the 2015 WorldTour calendar.
The participation of Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) offers still greater interest. The 24-year-old is still far from fulfilling his potential, despite the rainbow jersey, and the Paris-Nice parcours offers much to a rider of his versatility. He can expect to recover on the three flat stages, where his team is likely to ride for Tom Boonen, and is well-suited to the prologue time trial and the hilly fifth stage. The mountainous fourth and sixth stages, however, will demand better performances on sustained gradients than we have seen from Kwiatkowski thus far, and the concluding Col d’Eze time trial represents unknown territory for this Paris-Nice debutant.
Kwiatkowski won last season’s Volta ao Algarve and finished second overall this year. He benefits from being Etixx-Quick-Step’s long-term hope for the Grand Tours and while a transformation from rouleur to GC rider may require a greater breadth of talent than even his most fervent admirers suppose he possesses, the world champion has time on his side and the necessary foundations: he is a fine time trialist, reads a race well, is durable and has a strong finish. Only his performance on long climbs requires significant improvement.
Aside from the young hopefuls, this year’s Paris-Nice also represents something of a defining moment for Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky). Both have been touted as champions for a number of years, but both may still find themselves hampered by team-mates if their respective squads do not enter the race with a clear strategy. Sky must decide early whether to back Thomas or the 2013 winner Richie Porte. BMC seemingly face an easier decision in mustering behind van Garderen, but Rohan Dennis showed at the Tour Down Under that he is no respecter of seniority.
Add Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Cannondale) to the list of riders no longer sheltered by the cloak of potential. If he is able to follow his victory at the Dauphiné last season by winning Paris-Nice, he will have taken a significant step towards the peloton’s first rank of GC riders. Despite a plethora of early-season races to choose from, however, Paris-Nice will represent Talansky’s first engagement of 2015, and victory is perhaps beyond him with no racing miles in his legs. Porte, by contrast, has already won the Australian time trial championships, Thomas has won the Volta ao Algarve and van Garderen finished second at the Tour of Oman.
A youthful winner would offer a greater talking point for an edition of Paris-Nice bereft of likely Grand Tour winners. The continued emergence of Aru or Bardet, in particular, as both prepare for leadership at Grand Tours, would offer an interesting counterpoint to the expected success of one of the established stars at Tirreno-Adriatico. Victory for Kwiatkowski might be more significant still.