Luckily there’s more to the sport than out of control sports officials. This Sunday’s Paris – Tours is one of the autumn classics and often known under the label of “the sprinters classic”. The race doesn’t actually start in Paris, but outside the French capital in a small town called Voves. Nevertheless the distance of 230km is exactly the same if you started in central Paris and rode to the city of Tours. This is because the route snakes, especially with a kink in the final to borrow some hillier terrain, the potential launch pad for attacks.
Today the race enjoys the status of a classic, the term used to describe a prestigious international race that has stood the test of time. It’s fashionable for organisers of new races to name their event a “classic” for example the one-off Olympic test race was branded the London Surrey Cycle Classic. But Paris-Tour is authentic, with the first edition held in 1896. Nevertheless the history has been uncertain, with cancellations for war and for a while the route was modified as a loop in the region. The list of winners includes many sprinters but it remains one of the few classics that Eddy Merckx never won.
Paris-Tours has long seen the fastest average speed for a race and the Ruban Jaune (“yellow ribbon”) was awarded to Oscar Freire in 2010 for 47.7km/h. This award is given to the rider who holds the highest speed in a race over 200km long.
A further element that reinforced the sprinter-friendly format was the finish in Tours. It uses the Avenue de Grammont and in years past the race borrowed the full length of this avenue, meaning a finishing straight some 2.6km long. But recent works to build a tramway in Tours means the finish has been reduced, making a finishing straight of 800m.
Terrain and terroir
The Loire valley is one of France’s tourist hotspots. The Loire is France’s longest river but for tourists flock to the area around Tours, where the river meanders slowly past vineyards and fields of wheat. Many come to see the the 300 châteaux and enjoy the local wines. The region itself is rural and sleepy. It’s gentle cycling terrain and the more avid cyclist might find the terrain unchallenging but this is the attraction of the place, a peaceful part of the world and bike hire forms the basis for many a vacation. There are several local wines, with names like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, not to mention Vouvray just outside of Tours. It’s also the second biggest producer of sparkling wine in France. The local rider is FDJ’s Jérémy Roy, the ” most agressive” rider from this year’s Tour de France.
Enough tourism, there’s a race on. Look at the profile and it’s quite flat and the average speed can be very high. Typically an early move will go clear and build up a very big lead before the group feels the bunch bearing down and the leaders accelerate and shrink the group. Breakaways have won in the past but an early move lasting is unlikely given the open and wide roads all the way, these suit the bunch. But note the Côtes near the finish.
These are not hard by themselves but just as the Cipressa and Poggio are tough after several hours of racing, so the Côte de Beausoleil and Côte de l’Epan are just about enough to tear the elastic a bit. But they are very short, we’re talking 600 metres but at 12%. These are steep ramps to tackle in the big ring and it’s no surprise that in recent years Philippe Gilbert has used these climbs to jump away. But they are not hard enough to ruin the race for the sprinters, organisation before and after the ramps can make all the difference. Indeed it is not just the gradients but the small roads and the way the twist that suits attacks, it is hard to marshal a chase on this tiny roads.
Mark Cavendish is coming, his first outing in the rainbow jersey. He’s had plenty to do since winning in Denmark, from touring TV studios to partying, so there’s a chance the race isn’t for him. Write him off at your peril. HTC-Highroad team also have Degenkolb
Going through the others it’s an open race. Oscar Freire is back and his contractual confusion should motivate him. Aussies Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke and Chris Sutton are on form right now with recent wins and podium finishes. Riders like Romain Feillu or Daniele Bennati should be there too, plus previous winner Alessandro Petacchi is coming with a strong squad. For the breakaways, look for Thomas Voeckler and Philippe Gilbert and maybe Yohan Offredo and Grega Bole. We’ll see Thor Hushovd back in normal team kit too.
Currently the weather forecast doesn’t look good. A mild 10km/h headwind won’t cause problems but rain is forecast. The roads will be tricky near the finish.
When to watch
The open nature of the race, the balance of the sprint finish versus the tricky hills and twisting roads makes the final moments of the race often required viewing. The finish is expected between 4.30-5.00pm but the race time can vary a lot given the distance and wind, and the forecast suggests a slower race. Tune in for the last 30 minutes.
There’s also an U-23 race that’s 178km long and finishes about an hour ahead of the pro race. Previous winners include Hushovd, Tom Boonen, Samuel Dumoulin and Tony Gallopin.