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Saturday 20 September 2014

Irish fans have an affinity with this race. It kick-started my dad's career

Nicolas Roche

Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00

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Second only to the Tour de France in terms of prestige, Paris-Nice is the most important early season rendezvous on the French professional cycling calendar.

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For a stage race rider, the eight-day 'Race to the sun' is the first opportunity to show you are in good form and is an important race for both my Ag2r La Mondiale team and for me personally.

Irish fans have a particular affinity with this race. My dad kick-started his career when he won Paris-Nice as a first-year professional in 1981, and for the next seven years Sean Kelly took home the white race-leader's jersey as overall winner. That's still a record today.

It's a race that I always watched on TV as a youngster and later, when I was living in Antibes, I would always cycle down on the Sunday to watch the final stage on the Col d'Eze.

I know the last stage pretty well and the penultimate stage finish in Biot is just down the road from where I used to live, so my family will all be there to see me as the stage finishes next weekend.

Last year, I was going pretty well and finished 11th overall, which gave me confidence for the rest of the season, but a knee injury at team training camp in January means I won't be going into this year's edition in the same shape.

After an MRI scan showed I was fit again, I began my season at the Tour of Algarve in February with no pressure to do anything other than ride my own race.

I had only been back on the bike 10 days and for the first time in over a year I was stress-free, as I wasn't thinking about getting results. I just rode around, got a few bottles for the team and tried to get a bit fitter.

Last weekend, I rode two one-day races in Switzerland and was feeling a lot better. After the GP Insubria on Saturday, I did an extra 30km training with Maxime Bouet to push me over the 200km mark for the day.

The next day at the GP Lugano, I rode for the team before getting dropped out of the front group towards the top of the final climb.

As the group ahead of me chased eventual winner Ivan Basso and his Colombian breakaway colleague Fabio Duarte, I was chasing them and spent the whole three-kilometre descent just 20 metres off the back of the group. The final kilometre was flat and I finally caught them with about 300 metres to go, just as the sprint started, and finished last in the group for 17th place.

But Paris-Nice is the type of race where you have to be in great form to do well overall, so new signing Jean-Christophe Peraud will be the official team leader of my Ag2r team this week.

A silver medallist as a mountainbiker at the 2008 Olympics, he turned pro on the road last year with Lotto before moving to Ag2r in the winter. He was ninth in Paris-Nice in 2010 and has already finished second overall at the Tour of the Mediterranean this season. A strong climber and time triallist, Peraud is definitely a good rider in the one-week races.

I'll be there to back him up and am going into the race in the hope that I can ride myself in, not lose much time to the leaders in the first three days and then take it from there and see how I get on in the first mountain stage on Tuesday.

After that I'll see where I stand. I've been doing a lot of time-trial work since I came back from my injury, so if I don't do well in the 28km test on Friday it will be because of a lack of form rather than a lack of practice.

If I drift way down the overall classification then I'll change tactics and have a go for a stage win the last few days. Paris-Nice begins with a 154km road stage in Houdan tomorrow.

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