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Terrain Type: Hilly with a major climb, the Col de Vence near the finish.
GC Importance: Important and potentially decisive, yes. A bad day on the Col de Vence could end a rider’s Yellow Jersey hopes, though a good descender could limit his losses on this descending finish.

It’s another difficult day in the saddle with a succession of short climbs before the main obstacle of the day, the category 1 Col de Vence, in the Alpes Maritimes. The 220 kilometer stage runs parallel the Mediterranean Coast and travels east from Peynier to Tourrettes-sur-Loupe. The course travels over the hilly terrain of the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes, the mountain range that rises steeply from the Mediterranean Sea and gives Nice its distinctive topography. The long descent to the finish takes the sting out of the Col de Vence, but any rider who hopes to wear the Yellow Jersey in Nice will need good legs for this stage.

Setting out from Peynier, the stage climbs immediately from the start. The terrain is constantly up and down and the first categorized climbs arrive back-to-back after 30 kilometers of racing. the Côte-de-Val-Rose and the Côte de Barjols both carry category 3 ratings and share similar profiles. The Côte-de-Val-Rose climbs 1.9 kilometers at 4.3%, while the Côte de Barjols climbs 1.7 kilometers at 4.2%. Several uncategorized climbs disrupt the tranquility as the stage passes through Salernes and Flayosc on the way to the category 2 Côte des Tuillières. The Côte de Tuillières is short at steep at 2.2 kilometers with an average gradient of 8.2%. From the summit, there remains 140 kilometers left to race.

There aren’t really any flat sections on road on this course, as the road crosses the wrinkled terrain of the Côte d’Azur. Just over 15 kilometers after the Côte de Tuillières comes the Côte du Mont Méaulx, a category 3 climb. The Côte du Mont Méaulx is short and steep, climbing 1.7 kilometers at 5.1%. There’s little rest for the weary, as the course descends through Fayence, climbs a bit, and descends a bit more. Just outside Grasse, the road turns up again at the Côte de Tignet, a category 3 bump of 2.8 kilometers that climbs 5.1%. The Côte de Plascassler follows shortly after, and offers 3.7 kilometers of climbing at an average gradient of 2.1%. The riders still face two more climbs and 70 kilometers of racing.

The Côte de Châteauneuf provides a hors d’ouevre for the main climb of the day, the Col de Vence. The Côte de Châteauneuf carries a category 2 rating. It’s a classics-style wall at 1.3 kilometers and pitching up at 9.5%. That will not tickle. A brief descent followed by a quick climb brings the riders to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, where they pass through the finish, and then on to the final climb of the day, the Col de Vence.

In interview granted to the race organizers, Stephen Roche called the Col de Vence difficult and emphasized the necessity for good legs to reach the summit at the front. Despite the descending finish, it is possible to win or lose Paris-Nice on this climb, in the view of Roche. And who are we to argue with the only rider to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and the World Championship in a single year? For this Paris-Nice stage, the Col de Vence carries a category 1 rating. The climb stairsteps to the summit, and the gradients are never especially steep. It's the length that makes this ascent a difficult early season test, since the climbing starts at Pont du Loup and never really stops. The organizers list the climb as 9.7 kilometers, but from Pont du Loup to the beginning of the descent, the road climbs for just over 24.5 kilometers. Here is the full profile of the Col de Vence. The climb summits at 990 meters above sea level. Then, after a brief descent, the road plateaus and rolls mostly flat for around 6 kilometers before beginning the descent to the finish.

The road plunges down from the Col de Vence, dropping rapidly to sea level. Following the precipitous descent, the road tilts up again. It’s uphill drag to the finish of this stage, which should open up gaps in the general classification. The uphill sprint will favor a rider like Valverde, who is nearly unmatched in his ability to finish fast. But he will face formidable opposition from Alberto Contador, who may come to this race seeking vengeance for last year’s near-miss. Though he has said his season is all about the Tour this year, Samuel Sánchez is the man for this descending finish. If he reaches the summit of the Col de Vence anywhere near the leaders, he will offer a big challenge for the stage victory. This stage should do much to decide who wears the Yellow Jersey in Nice.

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