It’s commonly said that the Tour De France will be decided in the third week but the first week brings with it more danger than any of the last 14 days and we got a sharp reminder of the dangers that the first exchanges can provide when Chris Froome took a nasty crash yesterday on the run to Lille while Bauke Mollema also had a tumble. Froome finished in the bunch and has been given the all clear but amongst serious scarring and road rash that will be a pain, he feel on the same side that took an impact during Dauphine and to add to that, he had a wrist sling on until the finish, an extremely bad knock to be carrying before today.
Today’s run from Yypres to Lille, however, is the most feared flat stage of the tour this year for the main men in four years, because we take on the very thing that wreaked such havoc 4 years ago – cobbles. Today’s stage is uber significant for not only it’s ceremonial start in Belgium, this being the 100th anniversary of World War 1 – something that uniquely affected the Tour. The first 55km before turning into France however is potentially open to crosswinds already, so the fight for position at the front will be mighty from the drop.
We visit Roubaix just 10km inside France, and then all thoughts turn to the pave. The first section is the Carrefour de l’Arbre, raced for 1.1km but enough already to cause trouble with the fight for position to lead combined with the speed, crushingly narrow roads, and of course, the difficulty. A selection is likely to be forced early and it could be very large. Peter Sagan will fancy his chances of taking all the sprint points at Templuve. Sectors 7 and 5 have been removed but that’s thanks to heavy flooding and rain which just goes to show how brutal today’s race is going to be for all.
In the last 40km – after Bersee, which is 1.4km – we have most of the pave sections and of course, the most difficult of which – and the key point for today – is Horaning, 3.7km long, the most difficult extended section, and also just 15km from the finish; Wallers, the last section, is no cakewalk, and a last chance to really get a spring on a rival, coming as close to the finish as it does; The finish is a flattish affair which won’t trouble anyone on a flat day and gives an edge to fastmen.
There are two races today. 1, between the GC men to stay up, safe, and not lose any time although gaps can open and anything will be taken. Chris Froome must survive but it’ll be hard with the same side that caused him so much trouble in the Dauphine hurting and even minimal losses would be a good result; He has Eisel and Geraint Thomas to guide him today but it’s going to be a struggle. Alberto Contador lost over a minute but now comes with Michael Mørkøv, Daniele Bennati and Matteo Tosatto to ensure something similar does not happen again and he may even try and force the pace if in the right position. Alejandro Valverde is the best classics rider of the main men, having attacked in Dwars door Vlaanderen – he has Rojas to help him today but is one of those that can take care of himself more than others. With Nibali in yellow Astana have the first team car and a team full of hardmen, even if they lack the specific strengths of others. Andrew Talansky is made for hellish days and his Garmin side bring Sebastian Langeveld and the former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren to guide him while BMC have Daniel Oss, Marcus Burghardt, Michael Schär and Greg Van Avermaet to look after Van Garderen – probably the best squad for today.
And then we have the race for the stage win. There are 4 main cobbled classics, Harebleke, Gent-Weveglem, and then the two to take a note from. Flanders and Roubaix, which this route uses in reverse for the last 50km. Fabian Cancellara, a tenacious winner of Flanders and third in Roubaix, deserves favouritism and chanced his arm on stage 1 with a well timed late burst to get the jump on the sprinters teams over the tricky finish. He has no responsibilities in the side, should position himself well, has an impressive power sprint, and also one of the hardest kicks over the hardest sections; The only worry is that he will find it hard to drop riders in such a short and intense stage with 2km less of pave.
Peter Sagan is next – probably the fastest sprinter of a likely reduced bunch. The short, sharp nature of the test today suits him more than the 6 hour classic and his claims are obvious for all that he was sixth in the velodrome sprint at Roubaix but today is different. Alexander Kristoff had a fine leadout from his Katusha team and came as close to beating Kittel as anyone else has – or is likely to do so far this tour – on the flat run but today’s sprint will be a reduced one and if he stays upright then it’s hard to see how many could match him in a small group. He may not have much specialist support but the Milano San Remo winner knows how to look after himself and he might be better value than Sagan today. John Degenkolb has to be there too, and has already outsped Arnaud Demare – who will be looking at today with gleaming eyes – and Sagan to win Gent-Wevelgem this year; He was second in Roubaix for the sprint as well and will relish a lesser stamina test as well as a chance to shine brightly.
Sep Vanmarcke has finish second and fourth in Roubaix, losing out to Cancellara in 2013, and then in the select group this time around, but there’s got to be some team orders for Mollema soon and I’d be surprised if he didn’t get tasked with looking after him.
Niki Terpestra would need a solo win to have his best chance, a s he did when winning Roubaix, but he looks too big at 20/1. QPQS are filled with hardmen who live for these classics and he could well be team leader; Even then, I’d expect him to stay with a select group and he’s likely to have a say in either event; He ha a crash yesterday and had to ride back to the Peloton but it didn’t look as serious as say, Froome’s, for example. Van Avermaet is interesting, although I don’t know if he’ll be given a free role with Van Garderen needing protection.
Sylvain Chavanel and Heinrich Haussler are interesting big priced contenders for the foul weather but don’t make as much appeal as Teprestra to solo away.
1 pt each/way John Degenkolb (7/1 general)
1 pt each/way Alexander Kristoff (10/1 general)
1 pt each/way Niki Terpestra (20/1 general)