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Feb 25, 2015 – The first races of 2015 have already whetted appetites and provided an amuse-bouche of the season in store. The real feast, though, is being prepared for Paris-Nice and will be served by some of the biggest names in cycling: Porte, Wiggins, Kwiatkowski, Van Garderen, Péraud, Bardet, Talansky, Majka, Barguil and Aru will all be on the start-line in Maurepas, and all vying to succeed the winner of the 2014 Race to the Sun, Carlos Betancur.
While the route unveiled by Christian Prudhomme in February gave at least a vague outline of what kind of racing to expect over eight days and 1,137 kilometres between the Parisian suburbs and the Côte d’Azur, sifting the pretenders from the contenders promises to be a much trickier undertaking.
Wherever one looks on the provisional start-list, there are stage-hunters and “maillot jaune” aspirants: eleven previous Paris-Nice podium finishers are due to compete, and four previous winners. There are also 22 Tour de France stage-winners (and, coincidentally, 22 who have won stages at Paris-Nice) and four former world champions. The squads submitted by the 20 pre-selected teams are also clearly as well prepared as they are decorated; 16 of the riders down to start had indeed won races in 2015 before the end of February.
The usual imponderables aside, there is no mystery over where the decisive action could occur. Climbers like Romain Bardet, Pierre Rolland, Richie Porte, Rafael Valls, Tom Slagter and Rafal Majka, the 2014 Tour de France King of the Mountains, will all be eyeing stage 4 and the summit finish on the col de la Croix de Chaubouret. But to triumph overall, they will also have to see off the challenge of probably the three finest time triallists on the planet: world champion Bradley Wiggins, Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin.
Not that the time-honoured, final-day TT up the Col d’Eze is your normal race against the watch. For this reason, Andrew Talansky, Lieuwe Westra, Geraint Thomas and Jean-Christophe Péraud, the runner-up in last year’s Tour de France, can all harbour hopes of a stage-win that day and overall glory. The newly enthroned Tour Down Under champion and world hour record holder, Rohan Dennis, will also pose a serious threat, with the opening-day prologue in Maurepas adding to the kilometres of time-trialling.
If the battle for the yellow jersey has rarely looked so open or so rich in intrigue, the same applies to the white jersey competition for the best young rider. The revelation of last year’s Giro and Vuelta, Fabio Aru, won’t have raced a single day in 2015 when he reports for duty on March 8th, but the Sardinian has spent most of the winter toiling at altitude. Aru’s tussle with Warren Barguil at the 2014 Vuelta turned into a fascinating sideshow, and that pair will again lock horns.
Romain Bardet, a star performer at the recent Ruta del Sol, Wilco Kelderman, the white jersey winner at the 2014 Dauphiné, and maybe even Bob Jungels will hope to encroach on the latest instalment of Aru and Barguil’s duel. The stages earmarked for the sprinters should also keep the pundits guessing: Kristoff, Greipel and Degenkolb have already opened their accounts in 2015 but may find three French tyros – Démare, Bouhanni et Coquard – blocking their route to more bouquets. And for those who believe in omens, Coquard’s latest victory, no less than the world Madison championship, came just around the corner from Maurepas in the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines velodrome…
20 teams, the main names (as of February 25th)
Orica-GreenEdge : Albasini (Swi), Matthews (Aus), Yates (Gbr)
Etixx-Quick Step : Boonen (Bel), Kwiatkowski (Pol), Martin (Ger)
Lotto-Soudal : Gallopin (Fra), Greipel (Ger)
AG2R La Mondiale : Bardet, Péraud (Fra)
Bretagne-Séché Environnement : Fédrigo, B.Feillu, R .Feillu (Fra), Sepulveda (Arg)
Cofidis, Solutions Crédits : Bouhanni (Fra), Navarro (Spa)
FDJ : Démare, Jeannesson, Vichot (Fra)
Team Europcar : Coquard, Rolland, Voeckler (Fra)
Team Giant-Alpecin : Barguil (Fra), Degenkolb (Ger), T.Dumoulin (Hol)
Team Sky : Thomas (Gbr), Nordhaug (Nor), Porte (Aus), Wiggins (Gbr)
Lampre-Merida : R.Costa (Por), Valls (Spa)
Astana Pro Team : Aru (Ita), LL.Sanchez (Spa), Taaramae (Est), Westra (Hol)
Team Lotto NL-Jumbo : Hofland, Kelderman, Ten Dam (Hol)
Team Katusha : Kristoff (Nor), Silin, Trofimov (Rus)
Tinkoff-Saxo : Kiserlovski (Cro), Majka (Pol)
Movistar Team : Capecchi (Ita), Rojas (Spa)
IAM Cycling : Sy.Chavanel (Fra), Frank (Swi), Haussler (Aus)
BMC Racing Team : Dennis (Aus), Gilbert (Bel), Van Garderen (USA)
Team Cannondale-Garmin : Slagter (Hol), Talansky (USA)
Trek Factory Racing : Jungels, F.Schleck (Lux)