Just as the last remaining sunflowers await harvest there’s one more classic at stake. A classic with a small “c”, Paris-Tours has a long history and some big winners but doesn’t enjoy the same status today sitting outside of the UCI’s World Tour. Nevermind the UCI’s label this race consistently offers a lively finale, a tense battle between between the breakaway and the sprinters.
The Route: back to normal of sorts after last year’s course abandoned the late climbs in order to offer the sprinters a dress rehearsal ahead of the World Championships in Doha and now the lively finish is back. The start varies – “Paris” is a conceit – and this year’s départ is in Brou, 130km from Paris and a small town with a population 3,400. Perhaps the race is the biggest thing to happen all year here? Or even in the decade? After heading north-east the race curls back and heads south towards the Loire valley and Tours across a flat landscape occupied by large farms with plenty of exposed roads.
The profile hardly shows it but are three climbs near the end of the race that, if not high, are highly strategic.
- The Côte de Crochu is 28.0km from the finish and is as close as the locals get to the Alps with its hairpins and 8% gradient although it’s taken at speed in the big ring
- Next the Côte de Beau Soleil is 10km from the finish. This is another short climb but it is distinctive for the narrowness of the road. Suddenly a giant race is funnelled into small roads and it’s not uncommon to see riders heading into the woodland as they’re squeezed off the road. But the peloton gets stretched out by the short climb and the elastic can snap, especially with the sharp turns at the top and then another narrow descent surrounded by stone walls
- Finally the Côte de l’Épan is just 7km from the finish and a final wall at 8% which has often served as a trampoline for those trying to jump away
As well as these climbs the race uses narrow roads that twist and turn and after five hours of racing riders have to keep their wits about them and fight for position.
The Finish: once upon a time the Avenue de Grammont in Tours was an endless road, the world’s longest finishing straight. But municipal meddling put a tramway in town. Nevertheless the finishing straight is 800m long, plenty of time for a big sprint. As the map above shows the race snakes its way into town and this makes it hard to control. With 5km to go things open up and note the sharp turn with 800m to go.
The Scenario: an early breakaway should go and it’s often packed with the desperate who are still hunting a contract for next tear. Several teams have an interest to set up a sprint so we should see any escapes controlled but with 30km to go things get open as the twisty route and sharp climbs encourage attacks and there’s a delicate balance between using your team to control the early break and saving riders for the tricky finale.
Fortune favours the brave. Ever since the race moved to the Avenue de Grammont in Tours in 1988, famous as a sprint arrival, it turns out 18 finishes have seen breakaways win versus 11 bunch sprints.
Quick Step hold the key to the race. They come with a versatile team capable of playing strong cards for both the late breakaway and the sprint. Fernando Gaviria won last year and is an obvious pick again, he proved in the Giro he can sprint with the best and he’s form is good, he was with the front group in Bergen. Meanwhile Matteo Trentin won here in 2015 (pictured) and can either try the breakaway or offer a back-up plan for the breakaway. Meanwhile Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar are both in the hunt for a win this year, podium places in Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix respectively but no big wins. Yves Lampaert, Rémi Cavagna and Iljo Keisse bring the power to help control things too.
Nacer Bouhanni was on the attack a week ago in the Tour de Vendée, going solo in the final 20km before being caught and his leadout man Christophe Laporte went clear for the win. This says he’s confident and in shape to get over the hills in the finish. As ever he’s volatile but the real question is whether his Cofidis team have the horsepower to pull back a breakaway in the finish.
André Greipel is back. After a long drought he won the Omloop Eurometropool the other day. Today is an altogether biggest test with the climbs but he should have what it takes and Lotto-Soudal bring a cohesive team with Jens Debusschere also capable of leading the sprint.
Dylan Groenewegen finally landed that big win on the Champs Elysées but he’s still an infrequent winner, a top rate sprinter but not someone you’d bet on to win regularly. Lotto-Jumbo also have J-J Lobato as a sprint Plan B.
Team Sunweb have a German tandem in Phil Bauhaus and Max Walscheid with the former delivering the occasional win and the latter tipped as sprint royalty for the future. Ag2r La Mondiale will back their sprinter Rudy Barbier, the recent winner of Paris-Bourges. A useful signing this would still be an upset if he won today. FDJ’s Marc Sarreau was second in Bourges and another outsider but well supported by the likes of Lorenzo Manzin.
Write Mark Cavendish off at your peril. He’s won everything a sprinter can win except for an Olympic gold medal, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours and now there’s a chance to fix this. But the form and the focus are the doubts and he’s not got a big train, Dimension Data are without a full quota of riders and start with two stagiaires but if he’s within range in the final kilometre he’s got the craft to do it.
|Matteo Trentin, André Greipel|
|Dylan Groenewegen, Mark Cavendish|
|Barbier, Sarreau, Terpstra, Štybar, Debusschere, Drucker|
Weather: cloudy and calm with a top temperature of 17°C at the finish.
TV: live on France 3 in France and Eurosport around much of the world. Coverage starts at 3.15pm CEST and the finish is forecast for 4.55pm. If you can’t watch it all, tune in for the final 30 minutes.