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The first significant stage race of the season, Paris-Nice, rolls out on Sunday promising a heavyweight matchup between the top two in last year’s Tour de France: Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar.
Neither has ridden the Race to the Sun before, preferring its Italian counterpart the Tirreno-Adriatico, which starts on Monday.
Last year Pogacar, already the two-time Tour de France champion, won comfortably. Vingegaard was second, almost two minutes behind.
Yet in July, the Dane deposed Pogacar as the king of the Tour de France.
This is the first time they have met in a stage race since then and is likely to be the last time they meet it a multi-day event until this year’s Tour.
While riders have often treated Paris-Nice as spring training, at 24, Pogacar, a Slovenian who rides for UAE, has a chance to reassert himself against the 26-year-old Dane Vingegaard, who rides for the all-conquering Jumbo-Visma team.
“Pogacar will want to show that he is the winner,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme.
Paris-Nice has been run since 2002 by ASO which also owns the Tour de France.
“The strength of Paris-Nice is that it projects right back to July. It is really a mini Tour de France with summit finishes, a time trial but also flat stages with wind,” Prudhomme added.
Both Pogacar and Vingegaard have made dominant starts to the season in low-key races in Spain.
Pogacar has won five times in six days of racing. Vingegaard won all three stages and, inevitably, the overall classification at the Gran Camino.
“They look like they’re flying,” said Frenchman Romain Bardet, one of a strong group of potential rivals that also includes Briton Simon Yates, Daniel Martinez of Colombia, Frenchman David Gaudu and two-time winner German Max Schachmann.
Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who beat Yates by 29 seconds to win last year, has been omitted by Jumbo.
The 2019 winner Egan Bernal, who suffered an almost fatal crash last year in his native Colombia, is out with a knee injury.
– Highest peak –
The top two in the previous Tour de France have not met in Paris-Nice since 1994 when Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Swiss Tony Rominger entered. Rominger won and Indurain was 35th before going on to defend his Tour title later in the year.
The eight-stage race starts with a 165km circuit just west of Paris before heading south.
If offers chances for the sprinters, and the field is loaded with elite speedsters, including Arnaud Demare, Bryan Coquard, Tim Merlier, Arnaud De Lie, Sam Bennett and Mads Pedersen.
The route also includes demanding climbs, including the highest peak in the history of the event, the Col de Couillole, at 1,678m, on the penultimate stage.
There is also novelty. The team time trial returns after a 30-year absence but in a new format.
Instead of taking the time of each team on the fourth or fifth rider to cross the line, the clock will be stopped at the passage of the first arrived.
The idea is that teams will splinter as they send their fastest men, or leading contenders, up the road near the finish.
The idea, said race director Francois Lemarchand, “is to avoid seeing the team that wins the time trial place several riders at the head of the general classification” in a race that is often decided by seconds.