A conventional road race stage with an uphill finish presents a far less predictable opening stage to the Tour de France than we’re used to seeing with a prologue.
Rather than a so called race of truth (in which the winner would almost certainly be a big Swiss chap), tomorrow’s 191.5km leg across the Vendee to the Mont des Alouettes offers opportunity to an array of abilities.
That the winner is also assured the yellow jersey adds an extra incentive.
It’s a flat day as the stage traces the Atlantic coast south before wrapping around to Les Herbiers. But rather than passing through the town centre as it shapes up for the finishing hill, the race navigates around a periphery road.
This comprises eight roundabouts in just over 4km – the kind of technical run-in sprinters and their teams are used to handling.
The last of these roundabouts comes just after two kilometres to go, by which point the road is already ramping upwards. It continues dragging right to the finish line, gaining 100 metres in altitude but maxing out at a modest 4.7% gradient.
Topped by windmills and featuring a couple of broadly sweeping curves, this finishing hill is the only classified climb of the day. A mere fourth category ascent, it’s not a difficult hill per se, but does make for an intriguing finish. As Mark Cavendish said in his press conference last week: he’s won on harder but been dropped on less severe hills. Others have compared it to the 2009 Tour stage finish in Barcelona – although steadier. That stage was won by Thor Hushovd.
But instead of us going through the merits and chances of explosive climbers, hardy sprinters and cheeky French breakaway specialists, we canvassed riders and team managers as to who they thought would win the stage.
Who do you think will take it?
Brian Holm (Denmark) HTC-Highroad (sports director)
“A good Cavendish could win on that climb – or he could lose a minute. Then there’s [Philippe] Gilbert and [Thor] Hushovd. Matt Goss could win on there too.”
Julian Dean (New Zealand) Garmin-Cervelo
“Tyler is sprinting very, very well at the moment, but I think Thor. I’m not just saying that because he’s my team mate. We’ve looked at the finish and I think it suits him. It’s quite a technical run in and we’ll be driving. I think Thor has the punch to beat all those climbers.”
Jérėmy Roy (France) FDJ
“I hope [team mate] Anthony Roux will take it. But Philippe Gilbert is a winner on these sort of finishes.”
Stuart O’Grady (Australia) Leopard-Trek
“Hushovd. An old team mate of mine. He’s good for it.”
Danilo Hondo (Germany) Lampre-ISD
“A lot of people are looking at the first stage. We hope Alessandro Petacchi is good for this because it also means you get the yellow jersey in the bag too. We saw in the Giro how he could still be there after a selection; we hope we can do that again – and repeat last year’s Tour [where Petacchi also won the opening road stage].”
Maxime Bouet (France) AG2R
“I think Romain Feillu will win it. He’s a real racer, an opportunist, and often gets lucky. He knows a good race and which wheels to follow. I think he’ll follow Gilbert and then outsprint him.”
Markel Irizar (Spain) Radioshack
“We took a look at it earlier and I was expecting it to be harder than it is. So I think either Gilbert will win or Hushovd. Both those guys are in super good shape.”
Matt Goss (Australia) HTC-Highroad
“There’s a lot of incentive on that first stage. It’s a chance to win a stage and also you get to come away with the jersey. There’s certainly more motivation there than one other stage that could be the same. I’m super motivated for it and if I’m having a good day I hope I can be up there with Gilbert and Thor and these guys. We looked at it a few weeks ago and it’s certainly not going to be easy. You can’t be having a bad day. It’s not just the finish, it’s going to be open to quite a bit of wind for the final 30km. You’ve got to be saving energy before you come to that very last climb. Then you’ve got to empty yourself.”
Luis Leon Sanchez (Spain) Rabobank
“I think Gilbert. Lots of riders will be really nervous. If he’s good, I think [Maarten] Tjallingi will be the man for our team. Then again, it could be a day for Cavendish.”
George Hincapie (USA) BMC
“It’s going to be Gilbert or Thor. Cadel [Evans] is one of the best uphill finishers in the world but it isn’t quite steep enough for him.”
David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin-Cervelo
“Gilbert. He’s a strong favourite.”
Nikki Terpstra (Netherlands) Quick Step
“I’ve not had a look yet so I don’t know how hard it is. If it’s a really hard uphill it will belong to Gilbert. If it’s not so hard, I’d say my team mate Tom Boonen.”
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France 2011: Official start list
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index