Dead leaves line the side of the road and Greg Van Avermaet is left staring at his front wheel puncture. In this final classic of the season Matteo Trentin wins a two-up sprint ahead of Tosh Van der Sande.
All too often the opening phase of the race sees no hopers crowd a no hope move; at best a commercial break that will stay away until the TV cameras are working. This time 31 went away, stayed away and it was packed with big names and large teams. Matteo Trentin had two Etixx-Quickstep team mates in Gianni Meersman and Yves Lampaert while Lotto-Soudal had Tony Gallopin, Tosh van der Sande and Tiesj Benoot. FDJ’s classics man and sprinter Arnaud Démare made the cut too. It was partly thanks to Alexis Gougeard that the move went away, the son of a truck driver he was hauling the move clear in his excitable style. The move was helped by strong crosswinds which split the race into several groups making every man for themselves rather than the classic breakaway vs. peloton scenario. Cofidis were among the chasers but refused to work alone for fear of having nobody left for the finish.
The gap grew but the leaders didn’t have it easy and had to work for 180km just to ensure a margin of two minutes ahead of a counter-attack with the likes of last year’s winner Jelle Walleys, Niki Terpstra and Nacer Bouhanni as they hit the first of the three late difficulties, the Côte de Crochu. This twisty climb had hairpins and camper vans but it’s not the Alps and wasn’t enough to split things up with Julian Duval of the French Army team going clear. Perhaps he hoped to sneak away with his camouflage kit? He was joined by Arnaud Gerard of Bretagne-Séché and the pair were quickly swept up: trying a move without an Etixx-Quickstep and Lotto-Soudal was pointless.
The race saves the best for last with the Côte de Beau Soleil with 10km to go. Edward Theuns of Topsport led for the start of the climb but Matteo Trentin powered his way up. If this was a Strava segment he’d be the KoM and the small climb forced a selection where Greg Van Avermaet and Tosh Van der Sande joined Trentin and then Pavel Brutt of Tinkoff-Saxo rode across. Behind they were sitting up, Démare notably waiting for others to roll through and LottoNL-Jumbo had to take up the effort as they had two riders. Trentin was looking incisive on the descent, leading and also picking the best line to come out lengths ahead of the others.
Onto the Côte de Beau Soleil and Brutt was finished by the acceleration of Van Avermaet to leave a trio of three. They worked well together and quickly took 30 seconds’ lead, both Trentin and Van der Sande knowing they had team mates behind so the more they worked the more their chances increased and the harder others chasing behind would have to work. With 1km to go Van Avermaet raised his hand, signalling a front wheel puncture but there was no time to change wheels nor a team car close behind. It left a two-up sprint and Trentin started with 250m and held off a challenge from Van der Sande.
Does this race ever disappoint? Despite the flat route and modest startlist it’s often a compelling spectacle on TV and this year’s race saw hard racing from start to finish and suspense and uncertainty over who’d win last right to the end.
First created in 1896, an era when Paris and Tours were days apart for some travellers. Today it’s a 66 minute TGV train ride. Just as the world has changed so has the race and the addition of three climbs has turned this race from a procession into made-for-TV event, the only ingredient missing is a stronger field in order to help entice a wider public. Once known as “the sprinters’ classic” this change of course now means 17 breakaway wins versus 11 since the race first arrived on Tour’s Avenue de Grammont in 1988 and the addition of three climbs has only tilted things further away from the sprinters. The Touraine area doesn’t feature roads you’d make a point of visiting but after 200km of racing in the wind the small hills, sharp descents and twisting roads are just enough to force a selection and create suspense.
Matteo Trentin gets another fine win. Far from Etixx-Quickstep’s best rider he still occupies a valuable niche as a sprinter capable of winning on hilly days and aged 26 now has a classic and two stages of the Tour de France to his name. He lives in the middle of the Italian Alps and training rides are either turn left to ride down the Sugana valley or turn right to go up it. He also collects an unheralded record, the Ruban Jaune, for the fastest average speed in a race after covering the course at 49.641km/h. First awarded by Henri Desgrange in 1936 it’s now modified to the best average in a race over 200km and he beats Marcato’s 48.629km/h set in the 2012 Paris-Tours.
Van der Sande has yet to win a race after four seasons as a pro but he’s still 24 and improving, he seems to suffer from a lack of a specialism, a fast finish but a handy rider on shorter climbs too.
Greg Van Avermaet has been famous for finishing second and this must have been annoying him but now he’d probably love to reclaim this. Knocked off by a motorbike in San Sebastian, outridden in the Worlds and now a late puncture meant he couldn’t sprint. Could he have won? Put aside jokes about finishing second by default as we’ll never know and run the same sprint several times and the result can change as riders time their moves and interact differently. What matters is that Trentin looked convincingly strong, he raced into town with legitimate ambitions of a sprint win rather than fluking out in Tours.
Among the others Tiesj Benoot jumped away for fourth place, another side of what he can do in a long race. Apparently he’s had 58 race days and made the top-10 22 times, impressive for anyone but he’s a neo pro who’s also been attending university this year. The winning trio were joined on the podium by Sam Oomen (Rabobank Development Team) who won the U23 Paris-Tours. It’s his last amateur race before he joins Giant-Alpecin. He was third here last year but more of a climber and an exciting prospect for Dutch cycling.