Young pretenders vs the old guard in the sprints
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As usual, the most common feature of the Tour de France’s opening week will be bunch sprints, with the sprinters looking the favourites for the opening two days in the Vendée region, stage four in Brittany, and later, as the race heads eastwards and northwards, stages seven and eight.
The absence of a prologue this year means that whoever wins the first stage will also get to wear the yellow jersey, providing even more an incentive for the top sprinters set to take part.
Looking at this year’s start list, there’s a stark generational divide among those tipped for success. On one hand, there’s the familiar names from the old guard – Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) have a huge total of 55 Tour stage wins between them, and you have to go all the way back to 2007 for the last time a rider other than this trio won the most stages in a single edition.
Their dominance is being threatened by a new generation of a fast men, however, and current from suggests we could be in for a changing of the guard.
23-year old Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) boasts the best lead-out train and has been on great form all year; 25-year old Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) claimed a breakthrough win on the Champs Élysées at last year’s Tour has gone from strength to strength ever since; and 26-year old Arnaud Démare looked quick enough to take on anyone at last year’s race before finishing outside the time limit on stage nine.
Will youth triumph over experience? It will be fascinating finding out during the first week bunch sprints.
The battle for the green jersey
With so many points on offer in the bunch sprints, there will be plenty of activity in the race for green jersey during the first week, and recent history dictates that these early days will be essential to determining the final outcome – every rider who has gone on to win the points classification since 2012 has ended the first week in the top two.
Triumphing in the points classification isn’t so much about winning the most stages, but rather riding consistently and managing to accumulate points as often as possible.
A rider who wins one stage but fails to feature at all in the next would score less points than someone who finishes second and third on the same days, so for anyone hoping to win the green jersey it is of paramount importance to avoid pitfalls like crashing or being disqualified for dangerous sprinting.
That’s something Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has proven masterful at over the years – at least until last year when he was kicked-off the race after being blamed for felling Cavendish, bringing to an end his five-year reign as green jersey winner.
The world champion will nevertheless be the man to beat again, with the main competition coming from last year’s winner Michael Matthews (Sunweb), who will be able to challenge for points on the same hilly stages that Sagan usually gains his advantage on – such as the rolling stage day in Brittany on stage five, and stage six’s finish atop the Mûr de Bretagne.
Of the purer sprinters, Gaviria is best equipped to challenge thanks to his relative versatility, but may lack the experience to mount a genuine challenge.
A potentially crucial stage three team time trial
It’s been three years since the Tour de France last featured a team time trial; more significantly, it’s been a whole nine years since one as long as this.
Totalling 35km from its start and finish in Cholet, this is a stage included not just for the pretty spectacle of eight teammate riding seamlessly in motion, but also in order to have a serious impact on the GC.
For an idea of how big the time gaps could be, look no further than at the team time trial of similar length at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month. Only three teams finished within one minute of Team Sky’s winning time, only three more within 1-30, and six even finished over two minutes down.
Knowing how Sky like to take control of the yellow jersey early on, you’d expect them to want to lay down a marker with another devastating time in Cholet.
The likes of Richie Porte’s BMC and Adam Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott will also see this as a key chance to gain time; others, like Romain Bardet’s Ag2r La Mondiale and Dan Martin’s UAE Team Emirates will be praying that they don’t incur too many losses.
There may be a lot of racing to come from here until Paris, but time gained or lost here could still ultimately prove decisive.
The race’s first climbs
The peloton may not have to climb any genuine mountains until the race reaches the Alps and later the Pyrenees, but there are a few hills in this first week that will cause a stir.
Stage five from Lorient to Quimper includes five classified climbs and many more unclassified, none lasting longer than 3km, but with steep enough gradients to whittle down the peloton and encourage attacks.
It will be a bold GC contender who aims to gain time here – expect them to ride tentatively while the stage is contested by Classics specialists such Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), and green jersey hopefuls Sagan and Matthews.
The Mûr de Bretagne is tougher than any climb tackled that day, and will play a crucial role as the finishing climb on stage six.
In its previous Tour inclusions the climb has proven selective, with a select group of ten finishing six seconds clear in 2011, and big names like Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot all finishing a few seconds adrift from a peloton reduced to 25 riders in 2015.
Anyone with hope of a high overall finish will need to remain near the front while ascending it, while for punchy climbers like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (LottoNL-Jumbo) there is a dual chance of gaining time and winning a stage.
Cobblestones on stage nine
The highlight of the first week is likely to be stage nine, a 154km route from Arras to Roubaix that includes many of the cobbled roads made famous by the legendary Paris-Roubaix.
The Tour has featured cobblestones as recently as 2015, but whereas that was a relatively tame affair in which all of the favourites finished together in a large group, this year’s parcours constitutes tougher and over twice as many pavé sectors, meaning it should be more in line with the chaotic, rainy stage in Belgium in which the 2014 Tour blew to pieces.
That day Vincenzo Nibali showed hitherto unheralded skill over the cobbles to successfully attack and solidify his overall lead, meaning he’ll likely be eyeing up this year’s stage as an opportune moment to gain time over his yellow jersey rivals.
On the same day, Chris Froome crashed and abandoned the race, and the stress and treachery of the cobbled terrain means it almost seems inevitable that at least one rider will see their hopes go up in smoke on this year’s stage.
Those not renowned for their bike-handling skills, such as Dan Martin, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), seem most in peril, while Richie Porte (BMC) will be nervous given his recent record Grand Tour record of crashing and misfortune.
Whatever happens, we can guarantee loads of drama on the Tour’s very own Sunday in hell.