PARIS -- Six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong tops the bill as the curtain rises on the new cycling ProTour but events backstage could overshadow the Paris-Nice race which starts on Sunday.
The atmosphere is likely to be icy, because of a cold snap in France and because of a dispute between race organisers ASO
and the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Whoever wins the weeklong "race to the sun" in Nice on
March 13 will receive the victor's yellow jersey, but it is
unclear whether organizers will also allow him to be handed the
UCI ProTour leader's white one.
ASO, which also organizes the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix,
Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Fleche Wallonne and Paris-Tours -- all
of which feature on the ProTour programme -- has refused to
promote the new series, seeing it as an infringement of its
As UCI president Hein Verbruggen put it: "ASO are in and out
of the ProTour."
The UCI has already won the first battle as the field for
the ProTour's opening event is of a standard usually only seen
in the big tours.
Not only does it include Armstrong, the greatest Tour rider
of all time, but some of the riders are likely to threaten the American
in July's race.
Last year's Paris-Nice winner, Joerg Jaksche of Germany;
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the most promising rider in the
bunch; and Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov, who missed last year's
Tour through injury, should be Armstrong's leading rivals.
In-form Belgian Philippe Gilbert, France's Sylvain Chavanel
and Jerome Pineau are also among those who could win Paris-Nice.
Armstrong has made it clear Paris-Nice is only a
preparation race in which he does not expect to shine, but on
sheer class he should be among the riders to watch in Sunday's
demanding finale to Nice.
"I have very low expectations for me personally," the
33-year-old said on his Discovery Channel team Web site. "It will
be my first race in Europe since the Tour of 2004."
Armstrong wrongfooted part of the peloton when he announced
he would go for a seventh Tour victory in July instead of
concentrating on other goals as some would have hoped.
But with the Tour so far away, Paris-Nice can hardly be an
"It's a great race that is steeped in history," said
"It's interesting in that it used to be a real goal for me
to try and win Paris-Nice. However, that has changed and it's
now purely a preparation race."
Paris-Nice holds mixed feelings for Armstrong. He was second
behind Laurent Jalabert in 1996, but two years later he abandoned
the race almost convinced his career was over after coming back
He finished 61st the next year but went on to win his first
Tour five months later.