Riding here in northern Europe this weekend, the sun was out and the air was just smelling of spring. Daffodils that sprouted in the unnatural warmth of January barely survived winter’s revenge in February. But, finally, there are signs that this late freeze, too, shall pass.
Paris-Nice, which starts this weekend, is the race in the pro calendar that is the most resonant symbol of change. Though there have been small multi-day races across the south of France and Spain, Portugal and Italy, this is the first major stage race of the season in Europe, but there’s more to it – and more magic in it – than that.
Image of Paris Nice from the author Max Leonard. The race's connection to the Tour de France makes this race a little more than a Spring test of the stage racers.
Over the course of a week, the raceheads from the dreary north of France to the luminous light and soft spring of the Côte d’Azur, enacting the changing seasons and promising, both to the peloton racing and cyclists everywhere watching, that the sweet days of summer will come again.
The so-called ‘Race to the Sun’ was set up in 1933, by a businessman wanting to publicise his two newspapers, Le Petit Journal in Paris and Le Petit Nice down on the coast. Conceived initially as a road-going version of the Six Day races that were popular in the velodromes of Europe and the United States, by the 1950s it had grown from an early-season training run to an important race in its own right.
By that time, many of the era’s top pros had started wintering on the French Riviera, taking advantage of the calm, bright weather, the cheap out-of-season accommodation and the endless quiet training roads in the mountainous back-country.
The fashion had started, perhaps, with the Cannes-born René Vietto, France’s first superstar climber, who as a pro in the ‘30s and ‘40s would invite his team-mates to stay with him, and endure his legendary 350km rides to Marseille and back, or over the Colle Saint Michel, Col d’Allos and Col de Vars to the mighty Col d’Izoard. Later, when Apo Lazarides, his protégé and right-hand man, retired, he set up a mini golf hotel in the sleepy seaside resort of Les Issambres. The first training camp destination was born, and soon the Côte d’Azur was a hive of professional off-season activity. Many small races sprung up in the surrounding area, to service these pros' needs, and by the time the Paris-Nice rolled round in March, many would travel up to the start and ride ‘home’.
That idea – of riding home – is as resonant as racing to the sun, and one that still holds meaning today. Nice and its surroundings are where many of the top international pros reside. And if you ride Paris-Nice’s famous Col d’Èze to La Turbie on any given day in the spring, you might perhaps see famous faces (Philippe Gilbert, Tejay van Garderen, Chris Froome and last year’s Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte, among many others, are locals) topping up their bidons at the village fountain. Froome, Geraint Thomas, Alberto Contador and Giro winner Fabio Aru are on the start list, but even for such champions the road home is never straightforward. This year’s Paris-Nice sees gravel roads introduced in Stage 1; a trip toChalet Reynard on the slopes of Mont Ventoux on Stage 5, and a visit to the Madone d’Utelle sanctuary high above Nice on Stage 6.