Mark Cavendish’s return
Out of action since fracturing a rib and damaging his ankle at Milan-San Remo in April, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) makes his return to racing at the Tour de Yorkshire, where he’ll line-up as the event’s biggest star.
The Manxman will be eager to kick-start what has been so far a miserable season, in which he has crashed out of all of the last three events he has featured in (first the Abu Dhabi Tour, then Tirreno-Adriatico, and finally Milan-San Remo).
He also has longer term demons that need exorcising – his last appearance in Yorkshire was at the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ, which ended in disaster when dreams of a first ever yellow jersey went up in smoke after a finishing straight crash.
Stages one and three to Doncaster and Scarborough are the days Cavendish will have his eye on, as stages that should finish in bunch sprints – although in Yorkshire’s ever-undulating landscape, this is never guaranteed.
His main rivals will include Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie), Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana), and possibly Sky’s young Norwegian Kristoffer Halvorsen.
First ever summit finish
Previous editions of the Tour de Yorkshire have typically consisted of two sprinter stages followed by a hilly final day to determine the overall classification, but the addition of a fourth day for 2018 has made room for another showdown among the GC riders.
The organisers have decided to use the extra day to include an uphill finish, the first of its kind at the Tour de Yorkshire.
The Cow and Calf Hill in Ilkley is one of the most famous in Yorkshire, and will be tackled at the end of stage two. Lasting 1.8km and with an average gradient of 8.2 per cent, including stretches that peak at a huge 18 per cent, it is more than difficult enough to cause race-defining gaps between the favourites.
It’s position at the end of the stage will also change the dynamic of how the race will unfold. Whereas previous GC stages of the Tour de Yorkshire have been unpredictable, here it is clear that the Cow and Calf Hill will be the decisive moment of stage two – meaning we can expect a committed battle between the GC riders, as well as even bigger crowds waiting in anticipation.
Decisive final stage
Stage two’s finish at Cow and Calf Hill will give shape to the GC and limit the number of riders in with a realistic chance of winning the overall, but the final stage will remain crucial in determining the final make-up of the overall classification.
This year the finale starts in Halifax and ends in Leeds, and retains the undulating parcours that has made previous final stages so exciting. There are six classified climbs in total, all but one of them lasting less than 3.5km and averaging higher than 8 per cent – and that’s not to mention the countless unclassified rises and dips in between them.
Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) won a two-man sprint on similar terrain at stage three of last year’s Tour de Yorkshire to seal overall victory, and will enter this year’s race as a favourite once more.
He’ll be up against a formidable contender in Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), who will relish the punchy terrain of this stage, and who has a good record in this part of the world having finished second on the stage to Sheffield at the 2014 Tour de France, and second again on a stage in his only previous appearance at the Tour de Yorkshire.
Team Sky will also hope to have a rider in contention on home roads, with the experienced Ian Stannard looking like the best bet in a mostly youthful roster that also includes Classics specialist Dylan van Baarle as well as the British trio of Chris Lawless, Owain Doull and Jonathan Dibben.
An expanded women’s race
With each passing year, the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire has grown and improved a little.
Starting out as an uninspiring single-day circuit race in 2015, for the last two years it has used the same route as the men’s second stage. Now, for its fourth edition, the race has been expanded to two days, making it the most sophisticated version of the race to date.
The first stage will, like previous editions of the race, be mostly flat, following the same route as stage one of the men’s race. But the second stage (also like the men’s equivalent) will finish atop the Cow and Calf, providing the race with a spectacular uphill showdown that has so far been lacking in its history.
Stars of women’s peloton
The Tour de Yorkshire may be missing two of the women’s peloton’s biggest stars with defending champion Lizzie Deignan absent due to her pregnancy, and her Boels-Dolmans team-mate Anna van der Breggen no longer down to ride despite earlier announcing her intention to do so.
However, the all-conquering Boels-Dolmans team have still assembled a typically strong team with the intention of gaining yet more glory. World champion Chantal Blaak has honoured her rainbow jersey this season, the highlight being a victory at Amstel Gold Race – a race with a punchy parcours comparable to this year’s reimagined Women’s Tour de Yorkshire.
She’ll be backed up by team-mate Megan Guarner and Amalie Dideriksen, although for once there are other teams who look capable of possibly matching their strength.
Team Sunweb can call upon the strong double-headed attack of Ellen Van Dijk and Leah Kirchmann, both of whom showed flashes of form at the recent Ardennes Classics. As did Audrey Cordon-Ragot with sixth at Amstel Gold, who will start for Wiggle-High5 alongside Elisa Longo Borghini, who herself may like the look of the Cow and Calf finish.
In Deignan’s absence, British interest lies in Canyon-SRAM’s Barnes sisters – Alice showed some good form during April with podium finishes at the Healthy Ageing Tour, while Hannah has recently saved her best form for performing on home roads, finishing fifth at last year’s Tour de Yorkshire and second at the Women’s Tour.