Despite UCI's warnings, riders plan on participating in Paris-Nice

PARIS -- The Paris-Nice race is set to start Sunday even though teams that participate face sanctions from cycling's governing body, which says it is fighting for its "survival" and ability to regulate the doping-marred sport.

International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid has urged riders to boycott the season's first major stage race, calling it "illegal" because the race organizers -- the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) -- are holding it under French laws and outside UCI rules.

McQuaid has threatened teams with six-month suspensions, fines of up to $9,700, and bans from the track world championships this month, which would affect cyclists who need to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

But only a few riders have backed out and, after an emergency meeting, the International Association of Professional Cyclists (AIGCP) ruled in favor of starting the race.

With cycling already rocked by a series of high-profile doping scandals, sponsors are hard to come by and boycotting a major race would leave many riders fearing for their futures.

The UCI plans legal action against the French cycling federation and AIGCP president Eric Boyer, who also manages the French-owned Cofidis team.

McQuaid says that because ASO also owns cycling's marquee event, the Tour de France, it can pressure riders to participate in Paris-Nice.

"Any teams that don't ride Paris-Nice won't be riding the Tour de France," McQuaid said Thursday in an interview from the UCI's offices in Aigle, Switzerland. "Whilst it might not be said blatantly to the teams, the teams all are very much aware of it. That is the lever [they] have because the Tour de France is a powerful tool.

"They abuse that position. Whatever happens come July there will be 22 teams prepared to ride their race. They have no interest in the overall good and overall development of the sport."

McQuaid said the UCI itself is vulnerable.

"I am here fighting for the survival of the authority of the UCI, and the autonomy of the UCI," McQuaid said. "That is under serious threat at the moment by what they are doing."

The French Anti-Doping Agency will be responsible for all doping tests at the race. The UCI will not send officials.

Defending champion Alberto Contador will not be among the 160 riders and 20 teams on Sunday.

ASO last month refused to invite his Astana team because of its implication in doping scandals at last year's Tour.

Sunday's race starts with a 2.9-mile prologue around Amilly. Seven stages follow as riders finish in the southern city of Nice on March 16.