Dubai: UAE Team Emirates will mount a serious challenge on Paris-Nice, arguably the first major European stage race of the year, from Sunday (March 10-17).

The eight-day long slog from the outskirts of France’s capital city to the Mediterranean shores of the Cote d’Azur is diverse — its route peppered with pitfalls and exposed to the unpredictable weather that is so often a factor during the early parts of the season.

The seasoned UAE squad boasts of its General Classification contender and former Italian national champion Fabio Aru.

The 2018 Colombian national champion, Sergio Henao, has his eyes firmly fixed on a podium place in the climbers’ stages and will be supported by Diego Ulissi, who favours the lumpy terrain in these races.

For the sprint stages, Norwegian powerhouse Alexander Kristoff will lead the charge after showing his early season form in the UAE Tour. The team will be backed up by Marco Marcato, Rory Sutherland and Sven Erik Bystrom — a rangy rider whose breakaway capabilities were showcased in 2018 when he narrowly missed out on a stage win at La Vuelta e Espana.

The race begins in the Yvelines region for the 10th year in a row, with a flat opener around Saint-Geramin-en-Laye that will provide the Kristoff with an early opportunity to take to the podium. The second and third stages, to Bellegarde and Moulins, respectively, will also favour the fast men, although the flat and exposed terrain open up the race to a continuous risk of echelons.

The terrain becomes slightly more rugged on stage 4 from Vichy to Pelussin, with four climbs in the final 60km, including the short but steep Côte de Condrieu. The category 2 Côte de Chavanay is just 10km from the finish and offers an obvious springboard for late attacks.

Joxean Fernández Matxin, team manager said: “We’ll be at Paris-Nice with Henao, already an overall winner. It’s his first European race of 2019 after he began in the tour of Colombia. Diego Ulissi, who rode well in the UAE Tour, will ride at his side and Fabio Aru will compete without pressure to perform in the classification. The team is balanced. We can count on a good group of riders to support. Kristoff, who will aim for the first three stages that suit sprinters”.