Tour de France Stage 1 Preview

What will I wear today?” You might ask yourself this every morning but 198 riders wake up today knowing there’s a chance of wearing something yellow, green, polka-dot or white later on.

Everything is up for grabs in the opening stage of the 2014 Tour de France. A sprint finish is likely but there’s plenty to come before including a landscape that’s been decorated yellow. The whole stage is live on TV from start to finish.

  • Km 68.0 – Côte de Cray, 1.6 kilometre-long climb at 7.1% – category 4
  • Km 103.5 – Côte de Buttertubs, 4.5 kilometre-long climb at 6.8% – category 3
  • Km 129.5 – Côte de Griton Moor, 3 kilometre-long climb at 6.6% – category 3

The Route: 190.5km across the Yorkshire Dales. The word Dale is similar to the German Tal, valley. It’s a hilly area, verdant but exposed area where stone walls segregate sheep and at times the landscape has been picked clean of trees.

But never mind the scenery, the riders won’t be looking at the landscape as many of the roads are narrow – if two cars meet in opposite direction both drivers have to check their position – and lined by stone walls, often shoulder height and often less than a metre from the edge of the road. So if anyone’s fighting for position or just careless than they risk slamming into the wall. It also means getting a spare wheel from the team car is hard because the narrow roads prevent vehicles from moving up and down the convoy behind the race. The risk eases during the last hour as the roads get wider the closer the finish gets.

The Finish: there are two roundabouts to negotiate just before the five kilometres to go sign. Then one long straight road interrupted by a large roundabout at two kilometres to go. It’s not flat, it’s got rollers but they require little more than a click or two on the gears and the road is often sheltered by buildings, walls and trees. The graphic above shows how the road climbs in Harrogate to the line but doesn’t quite capture the roller-coaster rise and fall of the road. Nothing’s steep, the upward gradients nudge 4-5% and they’re too short to trouble the sprinters. Instead it could disrupt the sprint trains, especially with a dip in the final kilometre but before drag uphill all the way to the line. Timing’s everything, go too early and you’re swamped but leave it too late and someone else has got the jump, the momentum and the stage win.

The Scenario: the maillot jaune awaits in Harrogate but there are three climbs along the route with points for the mountains competition, a case of who dares wins. So expect a move to go clear. The problem is that the jersey is open to many, if a move goes clear others will be desperate to get in it. The Tour is so big that wearing the polka-dot jersey for a day probably brings more publicity than winning, say, Gent-Wevelgem. At the same time neither the sprinters’ teams nor the GC teams will want a giant breakaway to vanish up the road. So the day’s main uncertainty is how long it takes for a breakaway to go clear. Watch the intermediate sprint to see which sprinters contest it, an early indication of who wants the green jersey and who is going to save themselves for stage wins.

The certainty is a sprint finish. 100% security never exists but we have all the ingredients for a sprint finish with flat roads and several teams desperate to put their sprinters into position. Talk of security, today’s finish is one of the most high stress days on the calendar and crashes seem inevitable.

The Contenders: there’s no prime pick because the contest is so close. Mark Cavendish is named first because he’s on home soil, the maternal side of his family is from Harrogate but this is anecdotal, it’s not as if he’s got some unique motivation to dash to the line while the others pedal indifferently to the line. It’s said Cavendish often taken a few stages to get into his stride in the Tour see the Giro last year when he won the opening stage in Naples. Unlike last year’s Tour he’s back to good health. The uphill finish is no problem for him, he’s won similar finishes, think Copenhagen for the Worlds and stages in the Tour de Suisse too.

Marcel Kittel will love the finish, it’s a test of pure speed and power with the long straight road like a dragstrip. Is he too bulky for the final metres? No, he’s won uphill finishes too, notably in Paris-Nice when the whole final kilometre was 4% uphill. There’s also the question of John Degenkolb who I think will work for Kittel today but have his chance tomorrow.

We all want to see Cavendish vs Kittel but André Greipel is a consistent stage winner in the Tour de France and leads this year’s victory rankings with 12 wins this year and in the recent Ster ZLM Tour took one stage and helped set up Lotto-Belisol team mate Greg Henderson’s win.

That’s the trinity of sprinters but what of the others? I see three riders on the next level. Peter Sagan is a default pick but in a pure bunch sprint he’s not got the leg speed to match the other, he’d prefer a steeper or longer finish and given the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Mildleton, is there to award the yellow jersey perhaps the Royals would prefer he didn’t? On the other hand birthday boy Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is the dark horse pick, a big power who often surges from nowhere in the finish. Third is Arnaud Démare who loves this type of finish and has the raw power needed but his FDJ leadout train has yet to convince against the bigger teams, he could be forced “to eat the wind” as the French say and waste precious watts in the final two kilometres.

Next comes Lampre-Merida’s Sacha Modolo, not prolific but able to beat the best on the right day. Then there’s Trek’s Danny Van Poppel who should contest the sprint but is unlikely to win, the same for Movistar’s J-J Rojas and Europcar’s Bryan Coquard.

Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel
André Greipel
Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb
Arnaud Démare
Sacha Modolo

Weather: cool and cloudy with the sun coming out later in the day and a light breeze from the west, not strong but the terrain is often exposed. The thermometer will peak at a chilly 17°C. The Tour de France has never been this far north.

TV: Live from start to finish, 11.00am to 4.30pm UK time / midday to 5.30pm Euro time. Tune in to watch the start but given this stage looks like a sprint finish certainty it’s likely a move of no-hopers goes up the road early. But watch for the scenery, some of the largest crowds you’ve seen since the Olympic road race and the decorations.

Flashback: this isn’t the first time the elite of world cycling has gathered in Leeds. Anyone remember the Leeds International Classic? I thought not. It was a UCI World Cup race from 1994-1996 and part of a British leg of the sport that never took off. One problem was the changing name and location, first the Wincanton Classic, named after a trucking company and the location switched from Newcastle to Leeds to Rochester. The 1995 edition was won by Anglo-Italian rider Max Sciandri, today a DS at BMC Racing.

The 10 second spin: after a scrap a breakaway goes with some lesser riders, think the wildcard teams, to mop up the KoM points, maybe Luis Angel Maté of Cofidis? Then a sprint that’s got a straight finish but nothing’s straightforward with the rolling hills. Can Mark Cavendish do it?

12 thoughts on “Tour de France Stage 1 Preview”

  1. This will be great, the run into Harrogate is anything but flat, Kristoff is my pick.

    Took me 7.5 hours to get round the course the other week, I’m about to be humbled 🙂

  2. Judging by the train I am sat on heading to leeds some three and a half hours before the start, the crowds are going to be absolutely huge.

  3. I’m giggling* at the thought of Sagan completing hulking out at the sprint just to get a handful of the duchess.

    *at Sagan, not sexual harassment.

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