201km and a yellow jersey waiting at the end. A likely sprint finish and a certain high stress day for the peloton and convoy to start their Tour. Don’t get caught out by the early timing of today’s finish.
The Route: the profile makes it look flat which it is. This is a coastal route and shifting the date of the Tour de France a week later than planned to reduce the clash with the FIFA World Cup means they can’t start via the Passage du Gois, the treacherous tidal road. Still there’s a marine theme as they pass along the coast for most of the stage and it’ll still be nervous too, this is the Tour de France and the opening stage is always a high stress scenario. Tense but internal to the race. At the risk of being rude about the host region this is a fine place for slow cycling but not breathtaking to watch on TV. It’s home to the Direct Energie team, the only pro team to have their service course in a 19th century manor house, as opposed to the habitual light industrial unit.
The day’s breakaway can go up the road for it’s only after 173km that the tiny climb of Vix appears for the mountains competition, listed as 700m at 4%, I make it 600m and surely the gentlest climb of the entire race as it rises through vineyards. Just one point for the first rider over the top, but an appointment on the podium awaits.
New this year is the bonus point. The intermediate sprints don’t have time bonuses, instead for the first nine stages the “B” sprint point on the stages do, but only a slender 3-2-1 seconds (compared to 10-6-4 at the finish and the upcoming team time trial will prise apart the GC further). Small and worth a sprint interval with just 13.5km to go? As they approach the finish it’s on a small road and with 9km to go there’s a narrow pinch point in the village of Souil.
The Finish: Fontenay is a small place and they skirt around the town’s light industrial estate before taking a sharp right hander and then a finishing straight that’s over a kilometre long. It’s not totally flat but barely a gear-change is needed.
The Contenders: who is the prime pick? The best thing about today’s stage is that it’s so open, we have almost all the best sprinters in the sport and yet none of them are certain picks, to advance one name is also to evoke concerns about their form. Plenty this year come with much reduced trains and this should be interesting tactically, how many teams will work to control the breakaway knowing that plenty of other squads are literally hoping to freeride on their efforts? How will sprint trains of two or three riders operate compared to the longer trains of old?
Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-Jumbo) is the pick for consistency, he’s won stages in every stage race he’s ridden this year and can pick up in the Tour where he left off last year in Paris.
Fernando Gaviria (Quick Step) has had some wins this year but got beaten in the recent Tour de Suisse which means he’s not such a firm pick if we go on form but Quick Step are a redoubtable team and rarely finish as runners up.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha) is the pedigree pick, he’s on fewer stage wins than Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) but has won more, more recently and last year looked effortless as he’d start his sprint from well back to surge past his rivals. But he hasn’t won a sprint this year since March. Cavendish himself hasn’t won since February either and if they both have different styles they’re obvious picks.
Next come a second wave of sprinters. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) can place but winning is a big ask. André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) has been dependable but isn’t a certain pick although he’s helped by a strong lead out train. On his day Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) can unleash a very powerful sprint but he might prefer a slight gradient. The same for Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) might prefer and even harder finish. The outside pick is Thomas Boudat (Direct Energie), unlikely but his team are the locals.
|Dylan Groenewegen, Fernando Gaviria|
|Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish|
|Sagan, Greipel, Démare, Kristoff, Boudat|
Weather: hot, sunny and a top temperature of 32°C. A light 10km/h breeze from the NE won’t trouble the peloton but it makes for the tiniest of headwinds in the finish.
TV: live from the start at 11.00am CEST with the finish forecast for 3.50pm CEST. Be sure to tune in for the sprint finish and the jostling on the run in to the finish. Otherwise it’s likely the early part of the stage will be big on shots of the peloton trundling along past the coast for hours on end.