Words by Nick Bull | Photos by ASO/Alex Broadway
Sisteron, Saturday 10 March 2012. It’s a brisk morning in the pretty town that sits on the banks of the River Durance a couple of hours north-west of Nice. As riders head out of their team buses to sign on ahead of the seventh stage of that year’s Paris-Nice, a young fan clad in a Europcar jersey is waiting around slightly impatiently in his attempts to meet Thomas Voeckler.
An elder gentleman, who is clearly experienced at what he does, goes around the teams seeking to get as many autographs as possible in his neatly arranged folder of rider photographs. “Monsieur, s’il vous plait,” he says as soon as he sees a pro. “Monsieur, s’il vous plait…”
Aside from that and the race’s PA ringing out, it feels like I am seeing what a normal weekend in the town would be like. Locals sit outside cafes, layered up in winter coats, paying little attention to what’s happening around them. Some smoke, another reads L’Équipe. And yet, remarkably, the paddock visible in front of them is full of vehicles representing teams with a combined budget of well over £150m. Then, as remains the case in 2021, Paris-Nice was the first European stage race on that year’s WorldTour calendar. Tell that to the residents. Bradley Wiggins is here leading the race, two days before he became the first British winner since Tom Simpson in 1967, but the crowds that formed around the Sky team bus at so many other events for years were nowhere to be seen. Tom Boonen and Alejandro Valverde, winners of stages two and three respectively, would be the centre of attention at events in their native countries. Here they were treated as mere mortals. It’s a remarkably unremarkable experience for my first stage start on the race.
This is part of Paris-Nice’s continued charm, one that not even the race’s change of ownership from Laurent Fignon to ASO nearly two decades has eradicated. As one colleague once said to me: “It feels like a throwback to the Tour de France in the late 1980s: it’s friendly, there’s little stress and the spectators are probably the same – everybody by the roadside feels old!” My interest in the race comes from the fact that I used to go on holiday to the Côte d’Azur as a child. The 2000 edition – the first shown on Eurosport in the UK for some time – went through Fréjus, the old Roman town we used to head to. A family relative lived in La Turbie, which helped facilitate trips (albeit by car) up the Col d’Eze once I’d realise the proximity between the two.
But despite the race’s decorated past, there’s something a little unsexy about it, too. The Dauphiné, organiser ASO’s other big week-long race, offers more familiar climbs and higher-profile riders in a Grand Tour-lite package. In recent years, Tirreno-Adriatico has attracted consistently stronger fields and an arguably more impressive list of winners (notably including Simon Yates, Primoź Roglič, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, all of them Grand Tour champions, since 2012). Then, of course, there’s the Paris-Nice name itself. The French capital may appear in it, but the truth is that this year’s Grand Départ in the Yvelines department (the 12th there in race history) will see stage one start and finish in Saint-Cyr-L’École. Good luck finding that on a map: hint, it’s 25 kilometres west of Paris.
Week-long stage races also sit in the unenviable gap between the all-or-nothing nature of one-day events and the constant churn of narratives that emerge from Grand Tours. In the case of Paris-Nice, too, it can easily get overlooked by both Strade Bianche (which takes place the day before) andTirreno (which overlaps it by five days) and it lacks the proximity to the Tour de France that makes the Dauphiné far more compelling viewing.
It’s a race that plays on long-held opinions and people’s traditional positions, too. Here’s one such conflict: the decision to make the leader’s jersey all-yellow in 2008 still irks me. Even the short-lived white (which previously signified the race leader between 1955 and 2001) and yellow hybrid that was used for six editions was better, even if it was not universally popular. However, I much prefer a road stage around Nice to end the race than the Col d’Eze time trial. Where’s my respect for history there?
Some of the race’s best moments in recent years have come on the final day of their respective editions. Geraint Thomas should not have won the 2016 race after Alberto Contador and his Tinkoff team plotted out a lower-key version of Fuente Dé in the hills around Nice, but the Welshman’s comeback on the descent off the Col d’Eze was truly remarkable. The following year’s finale was equally as thrilling; Contador wiped out 29 of the 31 seconds he trailed Sergio Henao by going into the stage, but again had to settle for second overall behind another Sky rider. Marc Soler achieved in 2018 what his countryman couldn’t, jumping from sixth to first in a dramatic final stage at Simon Yates’ expense. Remarkably, all three winning margins between 2016 and 2018 were under four seconds. Provided this year’s race makes it as far as Nice – the city is currently subject to a weekend lockdown and ASO reportedly have alternate stage routes mapped if required – the final stage next Sunday will be run over the same 112-kilometre, six-climb route that has featured in recent years.
Before that, however, is the intriguing double-shot of a flat, 14.4km time trial in Gien (stage three) and the fourth day of racing between Chalon-sur-Saône and Chiroubles that packs in seven categorised climbs and around 3,500 metres of elevation. With the latter stage’s final 25km kilometres including the ascents of Mont Brouilly (3.2km at 7.3%) and a 7.4-kilometre finishing climb to Chiroubles that ramps up to 10.3% for its final 1,200 metres, it could be one for both the GC hunters and classics contenders alike. These two stages will clearly impact on who wins this year’s race. Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma) will open his season here, while INEOS Grenadiers’ line-up features 2013 champion Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart.
“To reinvent itself is precisely what Paris-Nice is doing every year, even slightly,” said Christian Prudhomme when launching this year’s route. Max Schachmann’s unfancied – and somewhat overshadowed victory – in the race 12 months ago owed a lot to these innovations: clever route design allowed for echelons to wreak havoc in the opening two stages while the inclusion of the cobbled Côte de Neauphle-le-Château climb near the finish on the opening stage provided the Schachmann the springboard from which he based his GC victory on.