Saturday’s press conference from left, Romain Guilliame, Frederick Van Lierde, Jenny Fletcher, Martina            Dogana, race director Manuela Garelli, Charlotte Morel and Tine Deckers.

North America has it’s 70.3 Oceanside; perhaps Europe now has it’s Cannes as it’s official season kick-off. For many athletes in Europe, the race season officially begins on the French Riviera, as Sunday will see the debut of the inaugural Cannes International Triathlon. And while Cannes is known for its laid-back Cote d’Azur style, luxury shops and the famous annual Cannes International Film Festival, it’s going to be an insidious bike ride up into the Maritime Alps that is going to be, well, not so glamorous.

Triathlon in the city of  itself is not new; it was once an event within the TriStar series. But with the TriStar series folding, race president Manuela Garelli decided this year to run it as an independent. And it has the makings of a European classic in the mold of Escape from Alcatraz, Widlflower and the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon.

“Cannes is already an international city with the film festival. It was very important for me to make it a worldwide event,” Garelli told LAVA at Saturday’s press conference. “In the future, I want this race to be part of my own series here in France.”

And the race has drawn top talent from around the world, with the spotlight squarely on reigning Hawaii Ironman World Champion Frederick Van Lierde.

“I think this race has great potential,” Van Lierde said. “The Abu Dhabi Tri showed the world that it’s not a circuit but can have great names at the start. With 1,200 people doing it the first year, I think it’s already a success. And it’s all to that bike course; it’s very challenging. I think we’ll have some spectacle tomorrow.”

The race is actually comprised of two separate non-drafting races—a long-course event with a 2k swim, 80k bike and 16k run along the famed La Croisette waterfront, and a short-course version with a 1k swim, 50k bike, 8k run version.

But whichever you choose, it’s gonna be a beautiful beating. And it’s the long-course race that has the most attention from the pros. After a placid two-lap swim from the protected shores at Bijou Plage, athletes will board their bikes, head just two mile along the shoreline before turning left and going up, up, up, stepladdering to over 1,400 feet at its high point at Châteauneuf de Grasse.

And what goes up must come down; while athletes will be tempted to glance over to the view of the gorgeous cityscape, they’ll be locked into a death-grip on their handlebars. The final six miles of the bike leg is a virtual nosedive back to sea level on rough, tight winding roads with unpredictable turns. While a few pros are sticking with their tri bikes, road bikes are the order of the day.

The payoff for the hard work on the bike will be a pancake-flat—but fast—four-lap circuit along the famed La Croisette, passing in front of iconic hotels like the Intercontinental

The sold-out field of over 1,200 is a good indicator that the luxury destination is also one of the biggest early-season races in Europe. It’s enough a draw to pull in Van Lierde but he’ll face stiff competition; Spain’s Victor del Corral,

France’s Romain Guillaume, Herve Faure and Italy’s Alessandro Degasperi will have a crack at the champ. And while del Corral had breakout success last fall winning Ironman Florida and Ironman Arizona back-to-back on benign to flat bike courses, he is champing at the bit to hit the hills—and perhaps put his competitors in difficulty. In addition, it’s a feeling-out session against Van Lierde, who he’ll face later this year at Ironman France.

“I always race better in mountain courses, especially on technical downhills,” del Corral said. “That’s where being in XTERRA has helped. In fact, Florida was my first flat race with a good result.”

The women’s field sees the target on three-time Ironman France champion Tine Deckers. The Belgian. She’s back after having a a child, and with a few other pros women on the press conference panel, made a point—glancing down the row of athletes while talking—saying her intent is to win.

“I checked the bike course and it’s its more difficult than (Ironman France in) Nice; a lot of turns and roundabouts. The descents are really steep.” It really suits me,” Deckers said. She then glanced down the table at her competitors, adding, “my intention here is to win. So… watch out for me tomorrow.”

She has to content with leading French contender Charlotte Morel, Italy’s Martina Dogana, Canadian Jenny Fletcher, in the third race of her comeback from a cardiopulmonary issue that forced her onto bloodthinners and ended her season prematurely last year.

As the French favorite, Morel respects the the bike, which is a climber’s delight, but will present a dicey descent. “I checked the bike out, and it’s technical—and almost dangerous… but I quite like it.”

Weather conditions are slated to be in the mid- to upper 60s F, with morning clouds giving way to sun as the morning wears on.

Check in at tomorrow for a post-race report, and in the coming days for a race-day gallery from the Cote d’Azur.