When you look at the Tour de France route you often tend to skip the first week and look up the mountain stages. For good reason, often the opening days are a parade around the more northerly parts of France where sprint finishes are almost inevitable and nothing of great tactical consequence happens, apart from maybe some crosswinds or every few years, the use of some pavé.
But this time it’s different. The opening stage features an uphill finish with 2.2km at 4.7% and Thomas Voeckler lives just down the road. Stage 4 has 2km at 6.9% to the Mûr-de-Bretagne finish and it’s Philippe Gilbert’s birthday. Stage 6 has a 4% gradient just before the flamme rouge. Stage 8 finishes in a small ski station in central France.
We’ll still see fruitless breakaways loaded with riders banking on the resultant media exposure and praying for a lucky break. Plus some days will result in a classic bunch sprint. But these uphill sprints mean the first week will be unusually exciting. For me at least.
If you’re not excited by the prospect, here’s a list of names in contention for the stage wins and yellow jersey: Philippe Gilbert, Thomas Voeckler, Matt Goss, Thor Hushovd, Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Pierrick Fédrigo, Samuel Sanchez, Nico Roche, Damiano Cungeo, Alexander Vinoukourov, Yoann Offredo, Borut Bozic, Edwald Boasson-Hagen, Fabian Wegmann, Peter Velits, Alexander Kolobnev, Samuel Dumoulin, Romain Feillu, Matt Breschel, Greg Van Avermaet. I could go on with many more names and it’s not certain all these riders get selected. But that’s one hell of a role call for an uphill finish.
The beauty of these kind of finishes is their tactical nature. Whereas a bunch sprint is about pure speed, with the addition of team work and crafty riding, these uphill sprints can be much more dynamic affairs. You very rarely see anyone “attack” in a bunch sprint with 750m to go but uphill this is quite possible. At the same time the gradient means a rider can reclaim several bike lengths in the last 20 metres. And instead of seeing the “usual suspects” of the sprinting world, the list of contenders is much bigger. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bunch sprint too but this first week offers something additional too.
So much can happen… and that’s quite unlike the more typical first week of the Tour de France. We’ll see the world’s best riders scrapping it out, a mix of sprinters, puncheurs and GC big shots. Only a few names missing because of injury and non-selection.