Today’s stage is a big loop to the south of Liège before it returns to Seraing, a suburb of Liège. It avoids some of the infamous climbs in the area but the race doesn’t need them to make the race come alive.
This is the opening stage of the Tour de France and there are several races on at once, from survival to the chance to take one of the leader’s jerseys.
Route: the stage heads out to the Ardennes but avoids the worst/best of the climbs. The climbs are not steep or long and can be cleared in the big ring.
- Km 42.0 – Côte de Cokaifagne 2.9 kilometre-long climb at 5.1% – category 4
- Km 49.0 – Côte de Francorchamps 1.1 kilometre-long climb at 6.4% – category 4
- Km 94.0 – Côte de Lierneux 2.1 kilometre-long climb at 5.1% – category 4
- Km 139.0 – Côte de Barvaux 1.6 kilometre-long climb at 4.2% – category 4
- Km 198.0 – Côte de Seraing 2.4 kilometre-long climb at 4.7% – category 4
Note three climbs appear before the feedzone. An early breakaway today could hoover up the mountain points but note only one point per climb so only the first rider across the top scores. The intermediate sprint could be a tactical point and since this is the first one of the race I’m going to explain more on this in a separate point below.
Overall the route does not present any obvious challenges but instead the difficulty comes from the riders. If an early move goes it is likely to come back, either in time for the intermediate sprint or for the finish. With the uphill finish later we could see sprint teams like Lotto-Belisol and Argos Oil-Shimano try to help their riders score points mid-way because the finish is too much. What is more likely is that we get a regrouping in time for the finish as several teams will want to try for the stage win and Radioshack-Nissan will be keen to defend Cancellara’s jersey.
The finish: I’ll come to the final uphill sprint in a moment but the diagram below shows the map of the final six kilometres. Note the number of right turns and roundabouts. It will be very hard to move up so the overall contenders and potential stage winners need to be in place at the front of the bunch well before this. Indeed every rider is going to be told to get near the front and stay out of trouble but 198 riders can’t all be at the front. As a result the pace will be fierce, riders will be rubbing shoulders and this is cycling as a contact sport. And like last year a crash is quite likely; if nobody gives an inch in the finish of a pro race then today nobody’s going to give a millimetre.
Finish: the finish is uphill with the kind of gradient that will blunt the legs of pure sprinters like André Greipel and Marcel Kittel. But this is the Tour de France and even the sprinters come to the race as lean as possible but all the same, maybe not today.
The climb has an urban feel, it starts after the steel plant and level crossing – specially tarmacked for the day – then rising past grimy red brick houses. It’s strictly big ring riding for the big names. But it should be tactical too, the kind of finish requires massive power but also a sense of timing and nerves. You can jump hard enough to open a gap on rivals but go too early and you risk giving a lead out and then collapsing before the finish line. The last kilometre is one straight line. However, ignore the average gradient for the climb, it kicks up and then eases before rising up before the line again. The middle section is more like 10% and, for the surveyors, briefly 17%. This is too much for the sprinters.
Note the overall contenders must sprint, in fact Cadel Evans must fancy his chances. Gaps can open up on the climb and if a rider is caught in the second group they will lose time, not something any of the overall contenders can afford to do. Easier said than done.
History repeating? Just as yesterday’s prologue was a copy of the 2004 Grand Départ, today’s stage copies the finish used in 2001. Then German sprinter Erik Zabel won ahead of a mix of sprinters and puncheurs.
Contenders: this is on Philippe Gilbert’s training roads and he is a good pick again. He won Stage 1 last year when it had an uphill finish but today’s finish is different as it flattens out before the finish line. Consequently it could suit those with more speed, Peter Sagan is the obvious pick to avenge his prologue result where he slid out and had to unclip his foot midway. Mark Cavendish is lean but it would be an Olympian result although he did well in the Ardennes stage of the recent Ster ZLM Tour. If not him then team mate Edvald Boasson Hagen? Another sprinter pick is Oscar Freire. Why not Cancellara with a jump 800m from the line, although defence of yellow might mean playing it safe and he sets up team mate Tony Gallopin.
If you want more wild ideas, look for Julien Simon of Saur-Sojasun or Astana’s Borut Bozic whilst Peter Velits (Omega-Quickstep) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenedge) are more conservative choices.
Green Jersey: the rules changed last year when the race organisers introduced a single intermediate sprint per stage and upped the points attributed to this with the first 15 riders getting 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points compared to 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 at the finish line today. This makes the intermediate point a vital source of points in this competition and last year we saw the sprint teams set up trains to help their sprinters. This also means breakaways can be reeled in prior to the intermediate point as opposed to being left out to simmer for the day.
TV: the live video feed is scheduled to start at 2.15pm Euro time. The finish is expected for 5.00-5.30pm.
Weather: rain is possible although onlyin the form of light showers. Mild temperatures of 18-22°C (64-72°F) accompany a light to moderate south-west breeze. If this gets up it will provide a crosswind for the latter half of the stage but it looks weak at 10-20km/h and the route is not too exposed either.
Food: try a café liégeois which is coffee, ice-cream and whipped cream served in a glass. It might be named after Liège but actually has nothing to do with the city. It used to be called a café viennois as in Vienna, the capital of Austria. But during World War I Parisian cafés rejected the enemy name and during the Battle of Liège they renamed the dessert in support of their troops, a tiny symbolic gesture that lasts today.
Do: …do nothing. The Tour is staying in the Liège area for several days meaning teams keep the same hotel for several nights in a row. The routine of unpacking and packing is yet to come, as are the long transfers between some stages, a total of 1,800km of journeying between the finish line and the hotel for the night which means late meals and a lot of time on the team bus.
Don’t: pronounce the “g” at the end of Seraing otherwise it’ll sound like seringue… syringe in French and the use of needles is banned in cycling.