Reigning champion Marc Soler will be looking to defend his Paris-Nice title when the race gets underway on Sunday. Photo @ParisNice via Twitter

PARIS – Cycling’s Paris-Nice starts on Sunday packing the thrills of a Grand Tour into eight days with a sizzling line up of sprinters, a posse of Colombian climbers and top guns Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and Simon Yates measuring each-other up for the title.

Neither Chris Froome nor 2016 champion Geraint Thomas will take part for Team Sky this year, but the British giants have sent their Colombian prodigy Egan Bernal to prove they have more than two irons in the fire this season.

The race starts on the outskirts of Paris where Britain’s Mark Cavendish arguably has three stages to target for Dimension Data and show he may add to his 30 Tour de France stage wins this summer in his quest to overhaul Eddie Merckx’s record of 34.

“I honestly believe I’m the fastest sprinter out there,” the 33-year-old pure sprinter said ahead of the recent UAE Tour after a quiet year due to falls and a virus.

In his way stand an impressive barrage of motivated sprinters such as Germany’s Andre Greipel hoping for a stage win to clinch one of the two remaining Tour de France wildcard spots for his new Arkea-Samsic team.

But it’s a competitive field with Marcel Kittel, Dylan Groenewegen, Alexander Kristoff and Sonny Colbrelli among others starting in the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Monday’s stage to the south of the capital could feature echelon creating crosswinds on the vast wheat plains in the Beauce region, providing a good platform for punchers such as Direct Energie’s newly signed Dutch specialist Niki Terpstra, as they also eye a home-soil stage win and a Tour wildcard invite.

Stage four, starting in Vichy with four climbs, is a second potential opportunity for Terpstra and the kind of riders fancied in the one-day classics.

An eye-catching 25.5km time-trial on Thursday features a climb to a clifftop abbey in the breath-taking medieval village of Barbentane in Provence.

A specialist, such as Daniel Martinez of Colombia, is expected to win the stage, but while it is unlikely to provide a springboard to overall victory a poor performance here could finish a climb specialist’s chances of the podium.

Home hope Romain Bardet of AG2R goes into the race in upbeat mood after ‘satisfying winter training’ with Saturday’s Col de Turini 15km 7.3 percent gradient climb foremost on his mind.

“It’s a 40 minutes climb and in March that’s quite a challenge,” he said.

“I’m not offering you fully comprehensive insurance on this,” said the 27-year-old when asked if he could win.

“But I want to shine at least once in my career at the Paris-Nice. Here I’m looking to gauge where I am on a linear progression towards the Tour de France,” said Bardet.

His chief rival is likely to be Britain’s Mitchelton Scott rider Simon Yates, who led going into the final day last season only to lose by 4 seconds in dreadful weather.

“We have a strong team here so we should be in the mix for most stages,” he promised after having Colombian climber Esteban Chaves named alongside him.

“It is a really good team and we are coming here to get results,” said Yates’ sports director Matt Wilson.

Bardet and Yates, however, face an armada of climbers who honed their fitness at the Tour of Colombia with winner Miguel Angel Lopez, Sky pair Bernal and new boy Ivan Sosa, winner of the main climbing stage there Quintana and Astana’s Rigoberto Uran, all potential winners.

AFP