Paris-Nice is anyone’s race without Wiggins

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PARIS, March 1, 2013 (AFP) – The absence of 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins from the field means this year’s Paris-Nice — which begins this Sunday — is wide open.

This will be the 71st edition of the Race to the Sun, which marks the start of the European cycling season and provides a hint of what might be to come at the Tour de France before attentions turn towards the Spring Classics.

Wiggins has opted not to defend his title as he focuses on preparing for the Giro d’Italia, but there are no shortage of potential winners heading into a race that is tailored initially for sprinters before finishing with a mountain time trial on the Col-d’Eze on March 10.

David Millar of Garmin-Sharp, a winner of the prologue back in 2007, is one of the few British riders competing with Wiggins not there, although he will be performing a supporting role to the team’s leading contender Andrew Talansky.

“It’s a very difficult one, the first big stage race of the year and the weather’s generally not that conducive to cycling,” Millar told Cyclingnews.

Established names such as Tom Boonen, Alessandro Petacchi and Heinrich Haussler have won stages in Paris-Nice before and will be contenders if they can make an impression on the opening days.

But the chance could be there for others, such as Nicolas Roche of Ireland, who is the leading contender for a Saxo-Tinkoff team that does not feature Alberto Contador.

“I have ambitions, I don’t want to disappoint,” Roche, the son of former Paris-Nice and Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, told 20Minutes.

“If I can get on to the podium, then all the better. I am targeting the top five.”

After finishing fifth overall last year and being crowned best young rider, American Tejay Van Garderen will lead a BMC team that has earmarked the race as a primary objective for the season.

He will be ably supported by world champion Philippe Gilbert, who is using the week to step up preparations for the upcoming Milan-SanRemo.

“This race is one of the nicest on the calendar and also a very important one to step up my condition with a hard week on the bike,” the Belgian said.

“I hope to do a nice prologue and give my best to protect Tejay.”

Another BMC rider, Cadel Evans, does not feature as he focuses instead on the Tirreno-Adriatico, but there will nevertheless be a strong Australian representation at the starting line, including Haussler, Mark Renshaw, Simon Gerrans and Richie Porte.

Other names to look out for include Katusha’s Denis Menchov and Italy’s Ivan Basso.

Cannondale rider Basso will be competing for the first time in 2013 after snow put paid to last weekend’s Gran Premio di Lugano, where he was supposed to feature.

“The most important thing will be how I feel, not results,” said Basso, playing down his prospects.

“I’m working towards the Giro and every race is a good chance to improve my condition.”

Basso will be itching for the race to begin, particularly after the stress of his recent involvement as a witness in the Operation Puerto trial of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes in Madrid.

The race begins with a 2.9km individual time trial in Houilles in the Paris suburbs on Sunday, and will be followed by three largely flat stages designed for bunch-sprint finales.

Seven categorised climbs feature on stage four before stage five concludes atop La Montagne de Lure, where Contador won in 2009.

Stage six will follow another undulating route before the testing mountain time trial conclusion at Eze just to the east of Nice.

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