Could the first week of the Tour de France be the best?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Stage 4

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.

Phil Gilbert

Nobody does it better

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.

Summary
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.

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{ 16 comments }

Carola Everts June 16, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Nice review of the first week! Really excited and curious to see how this is going to unfold. What are your thoughts on the mountain stages? As always, there is the so called queen stage. You think the ride from Pinerolo is THE one this year?

Regards, Carola

The Inner Ring June 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Carola: I’ll do a proper preview of the stages in due course, this was more a “wow this looks good” moment when I revisited the 2011 route recently.

Carola Everts June 16, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Great! I’ll be keeping my eye on that item than:D.

Mat June 16, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Nice write. It sounds like it will be time for the ‘sprint climbers’!!

owenp June 16, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Great post. One of the questions I was going to pose to twitter before heading out to France for 3 weeks this sunday was going to be “What would be the best place to watch stage 6″? You might have just answered thatby pointing out the 4% kick at the Flamme Rouge.

A twitter contact pointed me to this vid of the last 5k of Brest-Pleumleuc 2008 which illustrates a good example of the type of uphill sprint you are talking about. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x61hdv_etape-1-brest-plumelec-5-derniers-k_sport

The Inner Ring June 16, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Owen: thanks. the finish is always an awkward place to watch the race, you stand waiting to see the result happen… but it happens so quick! The 4% bit might be good yes but it can be a long wait to see them come past at 50km/h.

My tip is to treat the day as a picnic, find a scenic spot to spend a few hours with the family and some local food and watch the caravan and then the race roll by before catching the final on TV in a local café.

…all of which reminds me I need to write a “how to watch a stage race” guide follow up to the “how to watch a classic” piece I did earlier (http://inrng.com/2011/03/how-to-watch-a-race/).

owenp June 16, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Cheers- I’ve also just been told from elsewhere that Mûr-de-Bretagne will be mobbed.

I found riding up an HC climb and relaxing to wait for the race to be a great way to watch a mountain stage last year- I did it on two consecutive days. It depends on good weather though. For the Tourmalet, I stayed at home in the chalet.

Alex Murray - Chasing wheels blog June 17, 2011 at 1:04 am

Super-Besse always throws up something interesting, and those Massif Central roads are heavy and tricky. Shame Les Bougnats are too tight to host too many stages because it always makes the Tour more interesting.

One question though, won’t the Team Time Trial shape much of the first week? Whichever team dominates that will be able to let escapees go a bit on the final climb and still retain the jersey, shouldn’t they?

Murray June 17, 2011 at 3:12 am

You’re right, the uphill finish is going to be great; they’re not just going for the win, but for the Yellow Jersey.

P.S. could suit Michael Matthews too, not sure if he’ll be riding.

C Grade Cyclist June 17, 2011 at 3:35 am

I wonder if some of the GC riders who also go well at the Classics – guys like Evans and Cunego (who I believe is targeting GC this year) and Andy Schleck – might have a crack on some of these early stages in an attempt to bank some early time gains…??

If they could, it would certainly upset the usual dynamic of the race… :)

Raouligan June 17, 2011 at 9:36 am

Picnic nonesense get yourself into a bar all day, even better get yourself into a bar in Belgium and have smashing beer and watch the cycling all day ;0)

Flemish bar owners in my experince warm very quickly to even slightly tipsy cycling fans!

Lawrence Bywater June 17, 2011 at 10:18 am

Lovely review… hoping to see stage 4 into Mur De Bretagne, has to be a Gilbert win surely? As its the first time I will have watched a race from the road I would love a post of “how to watch a stage race.”

Ironman June 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

The stage profiles and the TTT will also leave the teams featuring GC contenders somewhat “used” after only the first week of racing as they will need to ride a good TTT and keep their leader up near the front on the final sections of the stages. Could truly be an EPIC tour!

I recall my first time in Liege for the L-B-L 1999 not realising the beer I was drinking was 8,9% – To this day I still can’t remember who won …

Nick June 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm

What this says to me is that the intermediate sprints suddenly got a WHOLE lot more important for anyone with designs on the Green jersey – notwithstanding the changes in the rules surround the sprint points.

Could be a case of try and nab the intermediate and scrounge what points you can at the end for all those Stages listed above.

@ScienceTwitt June 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm

1st week is going to be great. From the passage du gois to the dinan-lisieux (6). Then its to the massif central which as Alex Murray points out above should be good. In addition, I am keen to see what happens on stages 9 and 10. Both up and down all day with 9 finishing uphill.
I did some of the climbs that will feature in the alps a few weeks ago. I went up the galibier with a guy from saur-sojasaun. The big thing was the wind on the day. Our back and forth was about how it can be warm but if its windy its going to be savage come the tour. I have a few pictures up on http://circlesandsquare.tumblr.com/ but nothing too extensive.

Mike Short June 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm

I am so looking forward to week 1. It looks to be classics style finishes on many days. The big shame for me is that the 2 young guns of the peleton, John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan are almost certain to be missing for the start lists. Had they been riding, I’d be penning them in for the battle up the last climb on Stage 1.

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