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The new Paris-Nice is like Champagne without bubbles.

Without the fine bubbles, Champagne would still be a quality white wine, made from good quality fruit by expert winemakers, but it’d be lacking something special.

So it is with Paris-Nice, which still boasts a high quality roster of riders and will almost certainly be closely fought and exciting.

Tom Boonen, Rui Costa, Vincenzo Nibali, Taylor Phinney, Simon Gerrans, John Degenkolb, Greg Van Avermaet, Tejay van Garderen (until he retired from stage 1 with an illness), Carlos Betancur, Rafal Majka, Geraint Thomas, Sylvain Chavanel.

All good names.

But the race is different this year: there are less hills, no summit finishes and no time trials.

The missing fizz is that virtually all of the serious Grand Tour general classification riders have bailed out.

Last year’s winner, Richie Porte, isn’t riding. His bosses at Team Sky decided he would be better off replacing an injured Chris Froome (more on that later) on the hills of Tirreno-Adriatico than spending a week rolling in behind bunch sprints in France.

That was absolutely the right call – defending his title would’ve been virtually impossible for Porte, given the changed nature of the race, and Tirreno-Adriatico will provide better preparation for his major objective, the Giro d’Italia.

Porte told Cycling Central’s Al Hinds that the decision to race in Italy simply made more sense:

“Racing in Italy, that’s where my big goal this year is – at the Giro – so it really does make more sense to go there. And it’ll give me a good gauge to see how the other guys targeting the Giro are going.”

Christian Prudhomme, race director of Paris-Nice and the man who also oversees the Tour de France, was a bit miffed by Sky’s late swapsies, telling AFP: “We find it cavalier to have the reigning champion pull out just before the start.”

Well, Christian, with respect, perhaps you should have considered that before you designed a race that would be damn near impossible for the reigning champion to defend.

The late change should not be a reflection on Porte, even though he seemed pretty happy with the changes. The decision rests with team management, and they’ll be the ones locking horns with Prudhomme over it.

To be fair to Prudhomme, he justified the decision to avoid summit finishes by pointing out the the race will probably be close right until the final stage,

“We did this to make the race attractive. The race can be decided on the flat stages and on the hillier stages to Mont Brouilly, [Mur de] Fayence or even on the last day.”

I suspect he’s right, but the flatter parcours was still a mistake.

There’s enough climbing there to make this race too hard for a pure sprinter to win overall, but a strong all-rounder like Costa should be the favourite.

The first three stages suit sprinters; the next three suit classics riders who can power over short climbs; and the final two have some hard category 1 climbs which should decide the race.

The lack of summit finishes means we should see some sprint finishes from small select groups. The time gaps will be small.

So yes, I still think Paris-Nice will be a really good race to watch. But so what? The classics riders have the classics, the sprinters get a go all the time. Stage races with real hills and high quality fields are rare and special, and this year there’s one less of them.

I don’t like it, but I will still watch it.

One bit of good news for Prudhomme is that Nibali is riding Paris-Nice instead of defending his Tirreno-Adriatico title. I’m not sure if he thinks he can win the race, or whether he’s trying to win over the French public before the Tour.

There is support to be gained from the fickle ‘anyone-but-Sky’ elements of the cycling public, and it’s probably fair to say this year’s Paris-Nice suits Nibali about as well as it suits Porte.

At least Nibali is better known for attacking downhill than Porte, so perhaps he fancies his chances of pinching a win on the trip south.

Meanwhile, Team Sky has been keen to stress that Froome’s injury is nothing too serious, more of a precaution than anything else, and definitely not a sign that the wheels are about to fall off Sky’s 2014 season.

Sky’s team doctor, Dr Alan Farrell, said that “Chris has suffered a slight inflammation to the sacroiliac joint in the lower back. As a precaution we have chosen to withdraw him from next week’s Tirreno-Adriatico so he can focus on recovering and preparing for the Volta a Catalunya.”

Hopefully the situation improves rapidly. I couldn’t bear to spend the next three months speculating about Chris Froome’s pelvis.

This post was originally published on The Roar.

Who’s afraid of Christopher Froome?

After his overall win in the Tour of Oman, dancing away from his rivals on the slopes of Green Mountain, it’s clear that Chris Froome isn’t suffering any hangovers from his massive 2013 campaign.

Everyone should be afraid.

A burst of high-cadence acceleration was all it took to blow away Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and former Team Sky lieutenant Rigoberto Uran (OPQS).

As for Vincenzo Nibali, a man who many consider Froome’s most serious rival for the Tour de France, he was never truly in the hunt. With his wife at home about to give birth to their first child, it’s understandable if Nibali’s head wasn’t fully in the game in Oman.

Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Robert Gesink (Belkin), and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) were all thereabouts, but had no answer to Froome’s attack.

Winning the Tour of Oman is an early psychological blow

After stage five, Froome gave his perspective on his performance to Cycling Central:

“From a personal perspective I wanted to see where I was, where my condition was, and I think today I got the answer I wanted.

Winning here is always more psychological than anything else. At this point it’s still too early to say anything in terms of build-up to the Tour de France, but it’s definitely good to have it in there.”

As he says, it’s far too early to draw too many conclusions about the form of other riders, but what the Tour of Oman shows is that Froome definitely hasn’t spent his winter wining and dining at gala dinners.

It shows that Froome still has the hunger that seemed to desert Sir Bradley Wiggins after his own magical 2012 season (remember a clearly overweight Wiggins struggling to find form and condition leading into last year’s Giro).

Smashing his rivals so early in the season is such a psychological victory because everyone can see that, barring accident or injury, there will be no slackening off from the man who dominated every stage race he entered last year.

The effects of this can be seen already in the list of GC riders shifting their sights to the Giro d’Italia. It’s almost an admission that Froome can’t be beaten in the Tour this year, so let’s aim for the next biggest prize.

It’s a coup for the Italian race, which begins in Ireland on May 9th.You could even argue that the list of GC contenders for the Giro looks better than for the Tour.

In fact I will.

The best GC riders, Froome excepted, are not riding the Tour de France this year.

Joaquim Rodriguez, Cadel Evans, Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana, and Froome’s teammate Richie Porte are all aiming squarely for the Giro. All except Uran targeted the Tour in 2013.

That’s some serious talent on display in May.

In July, Froome’s main rivals will be Nibali, Alberto Contador, Rui Costa, Tejay van Garderen, Robert Gesink, and Alejandro Valverde.

Nibali is one of my favourites, but he’ll have to overcome the disruption of new fatherhood, as well as Team Sky.

Contador has looked past his best for two years, but he took his first win in over a year in stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve this week. Hey, that’s better than nothing, but he didn’t beat anyone as good as the riders Froome just thrashed. I’ll need to see a lot more before I rate Contador as a serious GC threat again.

Valverde is a similar story: he defeated Richie Porte on home turf in the Ruta del Sol this week, cleaning up three stage wins in the process. But he’ll be 34 by the time the Tour begins, and he’s never made the podium there. Many astute observers don’t think he’s even the best GC rider in his team. Yes, he’s still deadly in stages that suit him, but can he go three weeks without a bad day in the high mountains?

Costa is all class, but his best results have come in single-day races and as a stage winner. His highest grand tour GC finish to date is 18th, at the Tour in 2012. He’s unproven as a grand tour GC contender, despite very strong performances in shorter stage races like the Tour de Suisse.

Gesink and van Garderen are well known for their buckets of potential without ever really looking like winning a grand tour.

As the season progresses we’ll have a better idea of who is really in form and who’s playing catch-up.

But for my money, there are more genuine GC riders aiming for the Giro than I can remember.

Why would the Giro, a great race but undeniably less prestigious than its French cousin, attract a more competitive field than the Tour?

I reckon they think Froome can’t be beaten.

This article was first published on The Roar.

An interview with Nettie Edmondson

I interviewed Annette ‘Nettie’ Edmondson for The Roar.

She’s an extremely talented rider on the track, and had plenty to say about her transition to the road. She also made some excellent comments about women’s cycling, and some suggestions for how it could be improved to lift its status closer to that enjoyed by the men.

I have to say, Nettie was a great interview subject, very articulate and engaging. In fact, she spent extra time after the interview (on a Saturday night!) writing some extra thoughts and making sure she gave a good account.

It was a pleasure to speak with her, and I hope you enjoy the interview.