Can Mark Cavendish claim yellow in Corsica?
Cav has shown he can win, but can he get over the climbs?
Ever since details of this year's Grand Départ in Corsica emerged, Mark Cavendish has been touted as having his best chance yet of winning himself a spell in the Tour de France's yellow jersey.
The opening flat 212km road stage from Porto Vecchio to Bastia is practically made for him. With no prologue time trial to give prior shape to the GC, whoever comes across the line first will climb into the race lead.But what about stage two? After both Cav's team and CW made a recce of the Tour stages in Corsica last month, we think that Cavendish stands a reasonable chance of winning the next leg into Ajaccio too.
On paper, it looks unlikely, since the route crosses the interior of the island and takes in four classified climbs, including one second-category number at over 1,100m altitude. Indeed, when we climbed the Col de Vizzavona, we saw snow on the peaks and crested the summit in a fog so thick you couldn't see the other side of the road.
According to race director Jean François Pescheux's notes, the "rollercoaster" mid-section of the stage "will cause some real damage" and the "sprinters will bail out one by one". He even thinks a team leader will come unstuck.
On the flip-side, though, the two most significant climbs aren't all that tricky and come relatively early in the stage, with the Vizzavona's summit 60km from the finish. At such an early point in the Tour, no GC contender is going to risk putting too much on the line.
Much of the Col de Vizzavona's relatively high altitude is gained in increments throughout the stage. There's enough in the way of false flats between ascents to have a breather and no climb on the stage is more than 350m of vertical gain from it's base.What's more, Cavendish is possibly climbing better than he ever has - largely as a result of his early-season race schedule and having to remain attentive throughout the Giro in order to win the red points jersey.
It might also be noted how riders have previously been able to up their game when defending a race leader's jersey. Even if Cavendish does lose a minute or two, from the summit of the Vizzavona, there's still an hour or so to race. Only for a few kilometres does the descent fall away with any degree of technicality. After that, it straightens and tapers out into only a slightly descending wide, fast, open, valley road which may prove conducive to an organised chase or general regrouping.
CW ride the finish of stage two (the race finishes in the opposite direction)
"The beginning of the stage is hard, it doesn't stop, riders will need good legs," says Omega-Pharma sports director Wilfried Peeters who was inspecting the island with riders Tony Martin and Gert Steegmans. "Breaks will go but maybe they'll come back.
It depends what's going on with the general classification."Perhaps the bigger obstacle to Cavendish's hopes is the kilometre-long, third-category Côte du Salario, which ramps up on the fringes of Ajaccio at an average gradient of nine per cent. If still present, it's likely he could handle the climb as he has the capi of Milan-San Remo or the second-category ascent that preceded his unexpected stage-19 victory in Aubernas in the 2009 Tour.
The danger is it could be a launch pad for a dangerous attack and disrupt any grip of control his team might have on the bunch. Still, there's 12km from the summit to the finish. And that sits at the end of a headland reached by a flat, fast beach road tailor- made for a sprinter's team.
"It's certainly possible," says Peters. "There will be some breaks that want to go on the last climb but maybe we'll be looking at a sprint with a big bunch group."
Corsica gearing up for Grand DépartAlmost everywhere you turn in Corsica, there are signs of the island preparing for its first ever visit of the Tour de France. As soon as we'd got out the airport, there were workmen in cherry-pickers hanging banners along the lagoon road that will comprise the final run-in of this year's opening stage. Utility vehicles buzzed past with the Tour en Corse's logo emblazoned down their sides and a Tour de France billboard hung a little farther along the road featuring a cycling panda.
Down in Porto Vecchio where the race will roll out from, there's a countdown timer attached to the front of the town hall. It's a piece of paraphernalia we would see repeatedly across the island during our three-day visit, even in villages where the population numbered little more than a few scraggy cats.
When we popped our heads inside the Mairie for a little information, the knowledgeable woman on reception bombarded us with leaflets, schedules and maps. Just around the corner in a lovely little square, we found a steeplejack preparing to rope climb the church in order to unfurl yet another celebratory message on Corsica.
Down on the waterfront where the actual start village will be set up in the sprawling lots of the port car park, the area was chattering with the sound of pneumatic drills.
Painted traffic islands were being replaced with fetching stonework and the street-side flowerbeds had been freshly replanted. Farther along the route of the Tour's three days aboard the island, we found kilometres of fresh blacktop, landscapers on the verges getting heavy-handed with the strimmers and highwaymen with paint cans marking out sunken manholes which were going to need addressing.
Somewhere up the coastal route of the third stage, we even found a newly fabricated metal bridge beside a creek. It was waiting to replace the more haphazard structure that we'd just crossed upon.
While the red, white and blue of the French flag was conspicuous by its absence in independently-minded Corsica, the Tour's own ‘tricolor' of yellow, green and polka-dot was strung through the towns on bunting. Regardless of the island's historically difficult relationship with the mainland, it appears to have few reservations about being part of its greatest sporting festival.
This article was first published in the June 6th issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!