185km and flat. Looks easy, no?
Non as they say in French. Arguably today is the only real sprint stage of the race because later on the race gets more and more hilly. Several teams will be giving it everything to set up their sprinters today. More, the route is exposed and the wind is likely to be a major factor in the race today with gusts of 65km/h forecast.
There is one noted climb, 1.5km at 3.1%, presumably included to liven up the mountains jersey competition but the slope is suitable for sprinters. Indeed since the route is flat, the aerial view of today’s stage is more relevant than the side profile.
The race heads south by south-east for most of the day and the strong winds will be coming from the west. This means a crosswind and this can change everything.
- To explain, bike racing isn’t really governed by the UCI, instead the laws of aerodynamics are the primary code. In a strong crosswind a rider sitting behind another rider does not get the same drafting effect. In order to shelter behind a rider they must look at the vector of the crosswind and the slipstream of the rider in front. So when the bunch is doing 50km/h in a crosswind, you often need to be 45° off the back wheel of the rider in front. When the road is only a few metres wide there is only a room for a few riders. Consequently being behind a rider does not bring aerodynamic advantages and riders behind the leaders can flounder. Should a gap open up between two riders it can be very hard to close it. More so when teams and riders know there are crosswinds the strongest and most organised can split the bunch into pieces
This scenario has been common before, see the 2009 race when Rabobank gave a textbook example. This morning every team briefing will mention the danger of the race splitting…but this only increases the chance of this happening. Since every team knows it must protect its leaders, every team will try to get to the front and the pace will go up. A vicious or virtuous circle depending on which teams win or lose.
Crucially note the route loops west for the finish in Orléans. This means the last 20km will see the wind direction change. Any group that has been dropped and fighting to limit its losses will then face a tough headwind.
But if the above is a plausible scenario, it is not certain. The race can split… only to regroup and we could still have a giant bunch finish, and note a gusting wind is not the same as a consistent wind.
Either way, the mere threat of danger is enough to make today hard. The combination of GC riders and teams looking to protect their leaders and sprint teams trying to exploit their only sure chance of a flat finish means a what looks like an easy day on paper will prove nervous, dangerous and tactically sophisticated for many riders today.
The finish: flat for the last 5km. Over the Loire river on a long bridge then there is a roundabout at 1km to go. There is a 90° left corner with 250 metres to go meaning positioning is vital both before and after this final junction. The 250 metre finishing straight is 7 metres wide.
Hungry? I can’t think of much regional cooking from the area, instead the region is largely dedicated to the monoculture of cereal with huge fields controlled by agribusiness. This is where the baguette or French stick, is grown.
Local info: Orléans gave its name to New Orleans of course. A sleepy place today it has links to many great events in French history, from medieval battles to royal castles. Europcar’s great white jersey hope Pierre Rolland is sitting out the race with a knee injury but he lives right by the little bend with 20km to go in the race.
Weather: 7°C with sunshine and clouds at first but the possibility of sleet later. Westerly winds of 30km/h gusting to 65km/h.
TV: live images from 3pm to 4.30pm, Euro time.