Paris-Nice: A Precursor to Grand Tour Success?
Primož Roglič begins his 2021 racing season on Sunday, as he takes the start line of Paris-Nice in Saint-Cyr-L'École. As a man aiming to win the Tour de France this coming summer, Paris-Nice will serve as a good indicator of his chances- if not being a representation of what his form will look like come June 26.
Mr Paris-Nice, Sean Kelly. The Irishman won seven straight Paris-Nice titles throughout the 1980s, going on to win the Vuelta a España in 1988, some 45 days after victory in the race he mastered. © L'Équipe
Known as The Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice is often looked at as a mini-Tour de France, given its mixture of time trialling and summit finishes which suit the kind of rider who would also find success at the Grand Boucle. This year is no different, with a short time trial in stage 3 and mountaintop finishes on stage 4 and stage 7, the race is suited to a rider such as Roglič. Paris-Nice has served in this form for over half a decade and whilst its name has sometimes changed (such as becoming Paris-Nice-Rome for 1959 only), the general shape of the route has remained consistent: it will include a time trial, a few early days for the sprinters, and mountain days in the latter half. Today, Paris-Nice has settled on the eight-day format, although last year's edition was curtailed to just 7 days as COVID-19 brought the cycling season to a sudden halt.
Whilst it is a stage race very much alike to the Critérium du Dauphiné, with the contenders often being those tipped for Grand Tour success, it is interesting to look back at the past winners of Paris-Nice and assess how these riders fared in that year's Grand Tours, in particular the Tour de France. It is indeed the case that, since the turn of the millennium, The Race to the Sun has not been a good precursor to Grand Tour success and should Primož Roglič taste victory in Nice next week, the chances are that he will not go on to win the Tour.
In what would be a fantastic quiz question, there are 11 riders who have won both Paris-Nice and a Grand Tour in the same season, those riders being: Roger Lapébie, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Joop Zoetemelk, Sean Kelly, Tony Rominger, Laurent Jalabert, Alberto Contador, Bradley Wiggins and Egan Bernal. The distinctive feature of this list is that only three of the riders have competed in the 21st century- Contador (2007), Wiggins (2012) and Bernal (2019). Since 1995, only these three riders have won both Paris-Nice and a Grand Tour in the same season- with each winning the Tour de France. Whilst the race may be seen as an archetypal stage race in the mould of a modern Grand Tour, the conversion rate of success since 1995 stands at a measly 12%, not a figure any potential winner will be comfortable with this year.
Richie Porte won the final day time trial to snatch victory at the 2015 Paris-Nice. However, neither of his two titles led to Grand Tour success, with the 2015 Giro d'Italia providing a particularly bitter pill to swallow. © Sebastien Nogier/EPA
Amongst the startlist, one can identify only four standout candidates for Tour de France victory this July- perhaps the riders have cottoned onto the idea I am presenting here, don't win Paris-Nice if you also want to stand on the top step in Paris! The four riders hail from two teams, Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglič from Jumbo Visma, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richie Porte from Ineos Grenadiers. These four men have already vocalised their intentions to race the Tour and whilst Richie Porte may be seen as going into the race as a super-domestique, one cannot ignore his podium finish last year.
Porte is an intriguing rider amongst these names, with the Australian being the only man of the four to have previously won Paris-Nice. In fact, Porte has won Paris-Nice on two separate occasions, 2013 and 2015. After his first success in The Race to the Sun, Porte secured a commendable 19th placing at the Tour de France, riding in service of race-winner and teammate, Chris Froome.
2015 brought a different story, having moved to the top of the UCI Road World Rankings following his success as Paris-Nice. As many will remember for its infamy, the Team Sky rider (as they were known then) went to the Giro d'Italia as team leader, accompanied by a motorhome that he would sleep in. As was to be expected, the motorhome caused uproar amongst the tifosi, with fans seeing the move as an attack on the Italian supply of hotels. Of course, there was also the issue of an unfair advantage being given to the teams with the largest budgets. The debacle was eventually concluded in June as the UCI, in a blatant response to Chris Froome's desire to use a motorhome in France, changed their regulations and ruled that riders must stay in accommodation provided by the race organisers. Ultimately the quality of sleep was to be the least of Richie Porte's concerns, as he fell foul of another UCI regulation. Sitting third overall after a good first week, Porte punctured on stage 10 and accepted the kind offer of a change of wheels from Simon Clarke. In any other walk of life, this would have been a lovely gesture, however Simon Clarke was a rider from the Orica-GreenEDGE team and thus Porte had accepted mechanical assistance from another team, in turn breaking UCI rules. The Paris-Nice champion was docked two minutes, on top of the 47 seconds lost to the peloton, sending him tumbling down to 12th place overall. Porte would never recover from this blow and after a crash in the final knockings of stage 13, he would suffer insurmountable time losses and abandon the race after stage 15. As was the case two years prior, Porte worked in the service of Chris Froome at the Tour de France, helping the Brit to his second overall title with tremendous work on stage 10 and stage 20.
Bradley Wiggins storms to 2012 Paris-Nice success, prior to winning that year's Tour de France. © Sirotti
Bradley Wiggins is perhaps the ultimate beacon of hope for Primož Roglič and co, with his 2012 season serving as the master blueprint for any Tour de France winning hopeful. His stage race build-up to Tour de France success went as follows:
3rd at Volta ao Algarve
1st at Paris-Nice
1st at Tour de Romandie
1st at Critérium du Dauphiné
Twenty days after winning the Critérium du Dauphiné, Wiggins would begin his career-defining 2012 Tour de France, where he would become the first British cyclist to ever stand on the top step in Paris.
Alongside Contador, Bernal and Wiggins, only Roger Lapébie, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx have won Paris-Nice and the Tour de France in the same year. Perhaps the reason for this is Paris-Nice's placing in the season's calendar, coming in the earliest months of the year. Beginning in 1933, Paris-Nice has always served as one of the earliest French bike races on the calendar, with the initial idea being to see the race begin immediately following the Six-day racing season on the track. After a break imposed by World War Two, the prestige of Paris-Nice began to grow throughout the 1950s as the race transitioned from an early-season preparation, to a notable event in its own right. To this day, Paris-Nice takes place in March and of the riders to have won Paris-Nice and the Tour de France in the same year, 1963 brought the smallest gap between the two races, standing at 99 days. It is obviously not possible to maintain a high level of form over such a duration and therefore Paris-Nice is not a particularly great precursor for a rider who also wants to win the Tour de France. This year the gap between the two races stands at 105 days and in between the two races, Primož Roglič plans to ride the Ardennes classics, including defending his title at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Consequently, when looking at Paris-Nice as an indicator of Grand Tour success, perhaps we should look at the riders who will be racing the Giro d'Italia. Whilst many of the Giro's attendees are currently racing in Italy instead, namely Egan Bernal, Simon Yates and Vincenzo Nibali, a couple of riders will be starting both Paris-Nice and the Giro d'Italia as cheeky outside bets. Aleksandr Vlasov has already stated his commitment to racing La Corsa Rosa, with Jai Hindley being an unknown quantity.
“I honestly don’t know any of the races I’m doing next year... I definitely want to try for the GC in a Grand Tour again. Wearing a Grand Tour leader’s jersey is something pretty special and something I’ll keep dreaming of.”
Jai Hindley reflects on the 2020 Giro d'Italia and looks ahead to this year
Although he has played down the chances of him leading Team DSM at a Grand Tour his year, having previously spoken of waiting for the routes to be announced before making a decision, it is likely that Hindley will return to the Giro d'Italia this season. At last year's race, after impressing everyone in the mountains, he went into the final day's time trial wearing the Maglia Rosa, but went on to concede the title to Tao Geoghegan Hart. Hindley's strength is in the mountains, not in the time trail, and so the TT-heavy Tour de France route will not suit the Australian. On the other hand, last week's Giro d'Italia route announcement will have been music to the ears of last year's runner up, with a parcours more suited to the likes of Hindley. If he is to have a crack at success once more this year, perhaps Paris-Nice will give us an early indicator of his form, with it being his first race of the season in the new colours of Team DSM (formerly Team Sunweb).
Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart went into the final day of last year's Giro d'Italia level on time. Their rivalry will renew this coming Sunday at Paris-Nice. © Getty Images Sport
Vlasov and Hindley will turn to the 20th century for comfort should they win Paris-Nice. Whilst we have discussed the large gap between Paris-Nice and the Tour de France, Paris-Nice and another Grand Tour have been won together on seven occasions, with five of those Grand Tours being the opening 'grandie' of the season. Prior to being moved to its now regular slot late in the season, the Vuelta a España used to be raced as the first Grand Tour of the season. This calendar arrangement lasted until 1995, where the race was moved to September to avoid clashing with the Giro d'Italia; coincidentally, Laurent Jalabert won both Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a España in 1995- the largest time gap between a rider winning Paris-Nice and a Grand Tour within the same season (175 days).
In 1963, Jacques Anquetil became the first rider to win Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a España in the same season, with the opening day of the Vuelta coming just 46 days after the conclusion of Paris-Nice. This time gap is much more manageable in terms of form, thus the ride at Paris-Nice shows a much stronger signal of whether a rider will win the first Grand Tour of the season, in Anquetil's case, the Vuelta. The gap between the final day of this year's Paris-Nice and the start of the Giro d'Italia is 53 days. Eddy Merckx began the 1970 Giro d'Italia 64 days after winning Paris-Nice. In contrast, Freddy Maertens won the 1977 Vuelta a España just 41 days after winning Paris-Nice. Anything between this time frame is fair game and has seen the likes of Joop Zoetemelk (1979- 42 days), Sean Kelly (1988-45 days) and Tony Rominger (1995- 44 days) taste overall success in Grand Tours. Should Aleksandr Vlasov or Jai Hindley win Paris-Nice this year, we should see an overall victory at the Giro d'Italia as being on the cards, although it would not be the most probable outcome. After all, no rider has won the opening Grand Tour of the season, following Paris-Nice success, since Tony Rominger in 1994.
The likelihood is that the winner of Paris-Nice will not also win a Grand Tour this season.
In the 78 editions of the race, only 19% of winners have won a Grand Tour in the same season. Just under 13% of winners have gone on to win the Tour de France in the same year, whilst a measly 8% have gone on to win the opening Grand Tour of the season, be that the Vuelta a España or the Giro d'Italia.
There is a clear reason for the lack of Paris-Nice winners cum Giro champions in the modern era- Tirreno-Adriatico. Tirreno-Adriatico is the warm-up stage race for the Giro d'Italia and given the event is held in Italy, it is a significant point on the roadmap for any potential winners of La Corsa Rosa. Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice often overlap, forcing the riders to choose one over the other; in this scenario, a rider would more than likely choose racing the Italian event. The past eight winners of the Giro d'Italia have ridden Tirreno-Adriatico prior, with none of these winners riding Paris-Nice. The last winner of the Giro to have ridden Paris-Nice in the same season was Paolo Savoldelli, who placed 37th in The Race to the Sun in 2005.
There is a lack of correlation between Paris-Nice success and Tour de France success, given that having form in March is no guarantee of good legs in July. This is why a rider winning both events in the same season is such a rarity. Similarly, whilst Paris-Nice is positioned ideally in the calendar to serve as a warm-up race for the Giro d'Italia, riders clearly prefer to undergo their racing in Italy, which is perfectly understandable. We would be wise not to gleam too much from Paris-Nice over the coming week, in regard to the Grand Tours at least. Although a Roglič win would set him up as the big favourite heading into the Ardennes classics, it will likely not serve as a precursor to Tour de France success. Jai Hindley and Aleksandr Vlasov will be out to prove that Paris-Nice is just as effective a warm-up race as Tirreno-Adriatico, but the fact remains that they are very much following the path less trodden. By looking at the history of Paris-Nice, one can only come to the conclusion that victory here rarely serves as a precursor for Grand Tour success in the same season. Sorry 'Rogla'.