By David Hunter
St Etienne – St Etienne 170.5km
The race begins with a demanding looking stage in St Etienne. This is not an easy start to the week.
The riders are climbing from the gun, very unusual in an opening stage. The climb is 4.8km at 5.1%, making it tough to get in the morning move. Thanks to a number of climbs, getting in the move will be well worth it, with a healthy lead in the polka-dot jersey to be gained.
The next major obstacle is the cat 2 climb, 6.8km at 5.2%. This marks the beginning of the finale of the race, cresting with 76km remaining. Once back into St Etienne, we hit the lap circuit.
The riders cover three laps of the circuit, featuring the cat 3 climb, Cote de Rochetaillee. This climb is 3.4km at 5.4% and the riders have 15km between each climb. The final ascent crests with just 7km remaining, making the last climb hard to control.
No doubt, we will see plenty of attacks during the closing stages, especially as the climb is a perfect launchpad for a move. The gradient isn’t severe, but it will still be too hard for a lot of the sprinters. The pace of the peloton in the closing laps will dictate the size of the group we have coming to the line together. It could be 100 or it could be 10!
Thanks to a double corner inside the last kilometre, expect to see a big push in the closing kilometres. We exit the last bend with 500m to go, but the riders won’t see the finish immediately. Positioning will be key, as the front rider can hug the inside of the bend in the sprint, meaning anyone coming from behind must go the long way round.
A fast finish, with a little kick up in the closing metres.
The riders will be dodging rain for most of the week, with thunderstorms predicted. Luckily, this stage looks like being dry.
Too Hard For The Sprinters?
The lap circuit is a challenge for the quick men, but one most of them will relish. The era of “pure sprinters” seems to be over, all of the quick men in this field can climb. The timing of the race is also important, with only 4 weeks to go until the Tour, all of the riders will be near top form.
No doubt, some of the quick men will be dropped but we will have a few teams interested in setting a pace that will deter attacks. However, if an attack goes on the final ascent, it won’t be easy to bring back.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Eddy Boss has been flying recently. He won the green jersey here in 2016 and starts as the favourite to win it again. Racing in Norway over the last couple of weeks, he has picked up 5 stage wins and the overall classification in both the Tour of Norway and Tour des Fjords. Okay, his rivals were not at the top level, but he will start this race full of confidence, a treasured attribute in cycling.
Alexander Kristoff – the climbs shouldn’t trouble the big Norwegian, especially with good racing in his legs from California. Despite a strong start to 2017, his season has not hit the heights of previous seasons. He won’t mind too much if he can take wins over the next month in France. As usual, he is supported by a strong squad and he’ll hope to start the race on a positive note.
Sonny Colbrelli – two wins might not sound much, but the Italian really has enjoyed a step-up in 2017. His first season in the world tour has certainly been a success, thanks to wins in Paris-Nice and De Brabantse Pijl. He was close to taking another win in Romandie, but just missed out. He copes well with climbs, I think we’ll see him fighting it out for the win.
Petr Vakoc – after a very successful 2016, we’re still waiting for Vakoc to hit top form this season. I wouldn’t worry too much, it seems clear that his big focus is the Tour de France. That means, the Czech star should be close to 100%. This stage is an opportunity for him as he climbs well and has a fast sprint. I expect to see him on the attack, once we hit the lap circuit.
Arnaud Demare – the FDJ man has popped up with some good victories this season, his PN success being the biggest. Importantly, he’s managed to get the better of Bouhanni on a number of occasions, something that he will be very pleased about! He arrives with a team dedicated to helping him win a stage in this race, and this is a good looking stage for him. Not as fast as some of the other sprinters, he is better when we have some climbing.
Nacer Bouhanni – after a slow start to 2017, Bouhanni seems to be coming good. Wins in Paris-Camembert and Tour of Yorkshire, would have boosted his confidence, especially after losing to Demare in GP Denain. He has a good record in this race, winning three stages in the last two years. He had to take some time off the bike after a big crash in Yorkshire, he might be missing some racing from his legs. He will also be missing Christophe Laporte, a vital cog in his lead out train.
Jens Keukeleire – won the recent Belgium Tour, despite riding for the national team. It is very unusual that a national squad can win such a race, it shows the form he was in. After some lean years, his stage win in the 2016 Vuelta marked a new chapter in his career. He will look to benefit from his recent form in this race.
Bryan Coquard – the little Frenchman is enjoying another successful season with Direct Energie, although, this will be his last with the squad. He is still without a world tour win, something that he needs to sort if he wants to attract the biggest teams. He has been very close to taking that win, and stands a good chance in this stage. He will benefit from having an in-form, Adrien Petit, leading him out.
Edward Theuns – after his recent surgery, he was looking forward to testing himself in the Belgium Tour. Unfortunately, he crashed hard in the opening stage, but did manage to finish the race. The good news was that his back was fine after hitting the deck. This race is an important point in his season, as he looks to secure a start in the Tour de France, but with the team focused on Contador, he will feel a little lonely in the sprints! He was close to a huge win in Paris-Nice, earlier in the season, can he take one here?
Alejandro Valverde – if things get very tough, the Spaniard will be waiting to benefit. He can outsprint most riders, but don’t expect Movistar to try and drop all the sprinters. They will wait and try to benefit from the work of others.
Most of these sprinters will hope to make it over the climbs, with the front group. Yes, we will get attacks, but there should be enough chasers to bring everything back together. I would expect we’ll see a group of around 60 riders battling for the victory and Edvald Boasson Hagen will continue his fine run of form.
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