Autumn’s here and with it, the last televised race of the year. Labelled “the sprinters’ classic”, this Sunday’s Paris-Tours might have a flat route but most of the winners in recent years have come from breakaways thanks to attacks launched late in the race. It’s this tension between the sprinters and breakaways that makes the race so thrilling.
Once a very prestigious race, Paris-Tours has slipped in status still provides a thrill worth watching. More so because it’s the last classic until the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, some 140 days away.
The Route: 231km. Despite the name, Paris-Tours starts in the town of Chartres, 90km southwest Paris. The race has long started outside of capital, the départ seems to float around a lot, presumably to whoever will bid for it. Towns looking to host a stage of the Tour de France can get bonus points from ASO by welcoming this race.
As the profile shows the route is flat and a dull procession past the large fields of French agribusiness interspersed with a few glorious chateaux. This means some exposed sections.
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. 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 a sprint arrival, it turns out 16 finishes have seen breakaways versus 11 bunch sprints.
The Contenders: Nacer Bouhanni is the prime pick but he’s been on a losing streak for some time with crashes and a run of podium placings so no five chainrings for him. Some of this is due to his success, in many French races Cofidis must pull all day to chase the breakaways because all the other teams are wary of Bouhanni which means the red team are cooked before the finish and he is left fending for himself and gets beaten.
If Bouhanni’s had mixed fortunes this year, former rival Arnaud Démare had a worse time, FDJ’s sprinter with just two wins, both in May. He’s had two fourth places of late so back in the thick of the action. One problem has been that he’s tried to ride two horses, aiming for the classics and also trying to be a sprinter, and it hasn’t worked out. Here the hilly finish could well allow him to pull it off.
Sam Bennett was the last to beat Bouhanni this way in Paris-Bourges on Thursday and he’s got the explosive speed for the sprint but can he stay in the mix for the sprint over the hills?
Neo-pro Alexis Gougeard has made a name for himself with powerful breakaways and his recent prologue win in the Tour de l’Eurométropole was enough to carry him to the overall win in the race, he was even attacking in yellow jersey, proof that he’s impossible to nail down. A good candidate for a breakaway along with team mate Sébastien Turgot.
Greg Van Avermaet rides and is another obvious candidate for a late breakaway. The form should be there as he was looking sharp in Richmond but hasn’t raced since.
Sep Vanmarcke has been looking stronger of late and would make a good ally in a late move, the Belgian still needs a decent win to save his season and he was active in the race last year. He’s free to attack with Lotto-Jumbo team mate Moreno Hofland as backup for the sprint.
Trek Factory Racing have some good options with Giacomo Nizzolo as the pure sprinter then Danny Van Poppel for the sprint or a late flourish and Jasper Stuyven to join the likes of Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet, in a move but also he wants to become a name that gets mentioned alongside them.
Another team with a lot of options is Lotto-Soudal. There’s Jens Debusschere for the sprint and he’s proving increasingly regular. They’ve also got Jurgen Roelandts and Tony Gallopin for the late action with Tiesj Benoot too. Continuing the classics season vibe is Etixx-Quickstep with past podium finisher Niki Terpstra fresh from his 40km raid in Binche-Chimay-Binche backed by Gianni Meersman for the sprint, he’s one of the sprinters who copes fine with the climbs.
Jelle Wallays returns, hopefully with some victory salute practice after his odd moves last year after beating Thomas Voeckler. Edward Theuns might be the safer pick because of his fast finish.
Giant-Alpecin won here in 2013 but return with a team without the winner John Degenkolb, instead Nikias Arndt is their sprinter, a less certain prospect although he was third in the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro the other day.
Bretagne-Séché bring several sprint options with Yahueni Hutarovich, Romain Feillu and Dan McLay for the sprint. “Huta” is a chunky rider who can land big wins but the hills could defeat him with neo-pro McLay the most interesting prospect, a win seems too much but a podium’s possible.
|Sam Bennett, Greg Van Avermaet, Edward Theuns, Jens Debusschere
|Jurgen Roelandts, Arnaud Démare, Niki Terpstra, Sep Vanmarcke
|Gougeard, McLay, Gallopin, Meersman, Marcato
Weather: weak sunshine and a light tailwind of 15km/h. A top temperature 17°C.
TV: there’s a live feed from 3.30pm onwards and images will be available on Eurosport and other channels. If not there’s steephill.tv and cyclingfans.com. The finish is expected between 4.45pm-5.15pm Euro time.
History: the race goes back to 1896 and it was then run from Paris-Tours and the winner Eugène Prévost clocked an impressive 31.2km for the 250km route but it was not repeated again for a few years. By 1906 the race was staged by L’Auto, then the newspaper behind the Tour de France and to this day the race is run by ASO, the Tour company. Then the race has been on and off over the years and has seen many changes:
- In the First World War it was run in reverse with the finish in Paris
- It snowed in 1921. Francis Pélissier punctured and his hands were so cold he ripped the tire off his rim with his teeth and rode on a wooden rim to win the race
- 1959 saw the addition of the first hill, the Mont des Allouettes
- In the 1970s it started in Tours and finished in Versailles outside Paris
- It later went from Blois to Chaville
- In the 1982 Blois Chaville Laurent Fignon stood up in the team meeting and asked to lead the Renault team. They laughed but later on he was leading the race solo. The team had tried experimental titanium bottom brackets but they’d all been replaced except for the Fignon’s because he’d been training away on holiday with his bike. Suddenly the axle broke and sent Fignon flying, you can see the image above
- Only in 1988 did the race revert to Tours and it used the long, straight Avenue de Grammont. But a new tram has changed things and if the race still finishes on the same avenue, the finishing straight is just 800 metres long
- Gustaf Daneels (1934, 1936, 1937), Paul Mayé (1941, 1942, 1945), Guido Reybroeck (1964, 1966, 1968) and Erik Zabel (1994, 2003, 2005) all share the record of three wins
- Marco Marcato won in 2012 and with it, took the Ruban Jaune, the “yellow ribbon” prize for the highest average speed for a classic over 200km. The prize is measured only in pride and notoriety these days, there’s no trophy, cash nor silk sash