The next two stages of the Tour de France both look like nailed-on bunch sprint finishes, and, heading into them, one question will be preoccupying all of the top sprinters – can Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) be beaten? And, if so, who will be the man to get the better of him?
The Colombian romped to victory on stages one and four with excellent final sprints, and only missed out on the chance of doing so again on stage two due to a late crash.
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Typically, the sprinter who makes the best start at the Tour de France subsequently dominates the rest of the race; in each of the past five editions, the winner of the first bunch sprint (Mark Cavendish in 2016, André Greipel in 2015, Marcel Kittel in 2013, 2014 and 2017) has gone on to amass a total of at least four stage victories.
Gaviria could extend his tally to four already if he triumphs in the upcoming finishes at Chartres and Amiens – but there have been signs and hints that he is beatable at this Tour.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has pushed him closest so far, particularly on stage four when he came within a mere half a bike-length from pipping him at the line. There was very little between the two that day, suggesting that Sagan could edge a future sprint between the two, although we should be cautious talking up the Slovakian’s chances given his history in bunch sprints.
Surprisingly, Sagan has never won a pure sprint at the Tour. Four of his 10 career stage victories have come in uphill sprints, another two from small-group breakaways, and the remaining four in sprints from significantly depleted pelotons – including, of course, this year’s stage two in which Gavira was among the many to crash out of contention.
Other big names tipped to feature in the sprints have been off the pace. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) hasn’t yet translated his early season form into the Tour but could, as he did last year, improve as the race goes on. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) survived the crash on stage two to sprint for third, but has otherwise struggled to get himself into contention, while Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) looks a resigned figure a long way off his top form.
Instead, therefore, perhaps the riders most likely to topple Gaviria in bunch sprints unaffected by crashes are the experienced German duo of André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors).
Both of course have the pedigree, having totalled over their esteemed careers 11 and 14 Tour stage wins respectively. Crucially, they have also shown flashes of their top form at this year’s race.
Greipel was third behind Gaviria and Sagan on stage four, and the manner in which he did so was eyebrow-raising. Starting his sprint from a very long way out, the German was nevertheless able to sustain his speed for a remarkably long time before just tiring enough to be pipped at the line.
Kittel’s sprint for third on stage one wasn’t quite so spectacular, but still involved a lightning turn of pace to pass a total of nine rivals in the final 300 metres.
The problem so far for both has not been speed, but positioning, something that can be explained by the one major advantage Gaviria has over all them and all the other sprinters – his team, Quick-Step Floors. The Belgian team are currently on an extraordinary run of bunch sprint success, having won at least four stages in each of the last Grand Tours, and have continued to ride flawlessly by placing Gaviria in the optimum position for both his wins this week.
Stage one was an exhibition of their strength, in which Gaviria enjoyed the luxury of still having three team-mates ahead of him with just 350 metres left to ride, while all of the other sprinters were left scrabbling for his wheel.
Greipel and Kittel may have the form, but they will need their teams to step up and disrupt Quick-Step Floors’ supremacy in the lead-out if they are to have a shot at beating Gaviria. That will be easier said than done.