A fast sweep across Belgium. In recent years the near-certainty of victory by Mark Cavendish would make this kind of stage almost dull to watch, even if this is testimony to Cavendish’s peerless sprinting. This year however it’s different, a sprint is still likely, “Cav” could win but there are many more sprinters who can challenge.
- Km 82.5 – Côte de la Citadelle de Namur2.1 kilometre-long climb at 4.5% – category 4
The route: it starts on the Dutch border and heads across Belgium to the finish in Tournai, a large town on the French border. The route is flat and suggests a sprint finish is likely. It won’t be on the TV but the passage through Namur is worth a mention for two reasons. First because of the climb because this makes it a tactical point. Even if Basque rider Pablo Urtasun makes it into the breakaway… and then wins then he still won’t take the jersey of Michael Mørkøv as the Dane leads him by a bigger margin.
The second reason is the scenery, the climb is a series of cobbled hairpins to the citadel perched high above the river – high for Belgium at least. The climb is not tough even if the cobbles shake and it’s a regular finish for other races. It’s just a feature along the road of this otherwise unremarkable stage. Otherwise the route is so unremarkable that only the small things stand out, like the village called Silly at 164km.
Back to the race and the intermediate is late in the stage, coming with 54.5km to go. Several traffic islands await in the approach as well as two sharp corners but the last 500m allow for a straight sprint.
The finish: is flat or nearly, a mere 1% gradient in the final kilometre. The approach is reasonable, the race heads through Tournai passing the railway station with two kilometres to go before turning left over the Escaut river and a roundabout with one kilometre to go and then the road sweeps round to the finish along the leafy Boulevard Bara that is 7 metres wide, perhaps too narrow for the first sprint of the year.
The sprinters: plenty of talk has focussed on the overall classifications but the sprints should be excellent this year in their own right and we are likely to see a good battle for the green jersey too.
Mark Cavendish remains one of the fastest riders around but comes with less team support. He’s shown in the past he can cope solo but all the same, just having “Bernie” Eisel means things are marginally harder for him this year… all the more reason for him to win. As of this morning Peter Sagan tops the victory rankings of 2012 with 14 wins and André Greipel is next on 13. Next is Marcel Kittel, the new kid on the block, he turned pro last year and collected several wins including a stage win in the Vuelta, his first go at a grand tour but he first appeared on the block when he won four stages of the Four Days of Dunkirk, just over the border in France so he’s back on his top terrain.
Cavendish, Sagan Greipel, Kittel: these four are the obvious picks for the stage win but the open nature means several others will want a go. Matthew Goss comes with a very strong team then we have Mark Renshaw, Tyler Farrar, Kenny Van Hummel, Alessandro Petacchi, Oscar Freire, J-J Rojas, J-J Haedo and Yauhueni Hutarovich as challengers but there might even be others.
Tactics: the dynamics of sprinting will be interesting. In years past the HTC-Colombia team really took change of things but now things will be more open; we should be able to see this with the helicopter shots as the bunch is more grouped instead of lined out, although we should see Argos Oil-Shimano and Lotto-Belisol working hard. Also within the bunch Kittel and Greipel are hulk-like figures and there ideal wheels to sit on, more so since both favour a long sprint rather than a late burst with 100m to go; they also come with teams willing to work for them meaning they’re even better wheels to sit on for explosive riders like Cavendish and Haedo who can pop them at the very last moment.
For the green jersey the presence of Sagan seems to change everything as he is capable of winning points when others cannot. He won the stage yesterday in Seraing whilst the next pure sprinter finished 56th, Oscar Freire. Edvald Boasson-Hagen was third but we have yet to see what he does, will he support Cavendish and Wiggins at the same time? If the Norwegian was on another team he’d be a prime contender for green and multiple stage wins.
Local rider: a retro pick with Claude Criquelion. The last French-speaking Belgian rider to consistently win big races before Philippe Gilbert… he made his career in the 1980s meaning one very long way for Walloonians. “Criq” was a specialist in one day races but finished 5th in the 1986 Tour de France, the result was only equalled in 2010 thanks to Jurgen Van Den Broeck, although the VDB was upgraded following Contador’s exclusion.
TV: live images should start at 2.00pm Euro time with the finish expected after 5.00pm. You could watch it all but you can probably get something else done until the final 25km.
Weather: a mild day, temperatures of 20°C (68°F) and veiled skies with a wind that’ll be from the south-west making it almost a headwind for most of the stage but which could turn to a pesky crosswind towards the end, especially if it exceeds 30km/h.
Food: biscuits play a big role in the town’s economy with a large factory down the road and the surrounding fields are famous for their potatoes that keep Belgians and the north of France in frites. But if you are more adventurous try some rabbit cooked in a local Tournay beer. Once a year the town holds a festival the day after Epiphany on the Christian calendar, ie in early January and the phrase in Picard dialect goes “‘A Tournai, pou bin fair’ cell’ fiête, l’ceu qui n’a pos d’lapin n’a rien!” or in today’s English “you gotta get a rabbit to party in Tournai”.
Do: visit the town. A lot of the area has seen better days, even if the prosperity of the past rhymed with coal mining and grim times. But Tournai has its scenic parts including the tallest church tower in the area, an obvious landmark for such a flat place. Keen cyclists can ride over to the pavés of Paris-Roubaix, a cobblestone’s throw over the border in France.
Don’t: make a mistake. The first sprint finish of the race looks like a nailed-on certainty and riders will be reaching 70km/h as they head into town. The smallest mistake on a corner, too much or too little braking and you lose 20 places, worse you could lose control and crash out of the race.