This is only the third time since 1967 that the Tour starts with a regular stage. On the two former occasions the stage was made for a puncheur (Valverde & Gilbert won) but this time it’s made for the sprinters.
Looking at the start list, it’s clear that we have [almost] all the best sprinters in the world in the race this year. Only Démare, Bos and Guardini are missing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the riders to take the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France and we can expect a very nervous sprint. Still, I only see three riders with a solid chance of winning in Bastia.
Some say there aren’t many flat kilometers on Corsic - which is true - but there is no doubt that these 213 km will end in a sprint. There is a category 4 climb placed after just 45.5 km and that being the only climb of the day, many teams will be eager to win the first KOM jersey of the Tour. I would imagine a breakaway of 4-5 riders getting away before the climb and they should be able to get a good lead too. There are many strong sprinter teams in the race and bringing back the break in time shouldn’t be a problem. The intermediate sprint is located in San-Giulliano after 150 km. Despite a breakaway up front, the sprinters targeting the green jersey will have to show their hand and go head to head for the final points. There are still 63 km to go after the sprint so they have time to recover before the final battle.
After turning right with about 5.3 km to go, it’s straight out for 3.3 km until the riders reach a roundabout with 2 km to go. This 180° turn will really stretch out the peloton significantly and it’s important to be near the front at this point already. The last 2 km are straight out with only a few soft bends and the final 500 meters are slightly downhill. This means it will be a very fast sprint and therefore good for the big power sprinters like Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel. It will also be a very nervous sprint and it won’t be easy for the two Germans to keep their leadout trains in order.
Andre Greipel started out last year’s Tour de France in a terrific way with two wins and two second places in the first four mass sprints. Greipel has shown same strength so far this year and his leadout train is only getting better. With Marcel Sieberg to set the pace and Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Henderson to lead him out, Greipel only has to follow one wheel the last 10 km of the stage. While many of the others sprinters are fighting for the right wheel, Greipel knows Henderson will deliver him in a perfect way. He has done so all year long and there is nothing that suggest it will change now. Andre Greipel comes to the Tour fresh of an impressive win in the German National Championship and he will be eager to expand the yellow color on his new shirt.
One of Greipel’s biggest rivals in the sprint this Tour de France is his fellow countryman Marcel Kittel. Greipel may have a strong leadout train, but I think Kittel has the best one. Argos-Shimano have been trying to perfect what they call “the best leadout train in the world” for three years now. It has been a long way and it has gone wrong many times but I think they will show their power in this Tour. With Tom Dumoulin, Simon Geschke, Tom Veelers, Koen de Kort and John Degenkolb (5x stage winner in the Vuelta last year), Marcel Kittel can’t ask for more. Kittel has been very strong in the mass sprints the last two months and he recently beat Greipel and Cavendish on Stage 3 of Ster ZLM. Last year a stomach virus ruined his Tour de France and now he’s out for revenge. He missed out in the German Nationals last weekend but back with his normal leadout train, I think he will be very difficult to beat.
The only rider I see with a chance of beating Greipel and Kittel is Mark Cavendish; another rider who just won his national road race championship. In the past, Cavendish seemed to have a “Stage 1”-complex but ever since he won the first sprint stage of Giro d’Italia last year, he has been “cured”. Cavendish has already been wearing many different leader’s jerseys in his career but he is yet to wear the Tour’s yellow colors. In the Giro this year he won Stage 1 despite a sprint that went anything but smooth for him. The bunch sprint competition in the Tour is way stronger than in the Giro but I still think Cavendish will win this first stage. When he put his mind to something, he very - very - rarely misses out. “This is the first chance for a sprinter [to win the opening stage] since the 60’s and I need to grab this opportunity with both hands”, he recently said. Both Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel have a better leadout train than Cavendish but none of them can match he Manxman’s kick in the final. For many sprinters it’s impossible to pass Greipel and Kittel in a high speed leadout but Cavendish has done before and I think he will do it again.
It’s difficult to pick a joker with so many strong sprinters but I would like to point out Juanjo Lobato from Euskaltel. The Spanish sprinter may not be well known on the international scene - yet - but make no mistakes; he’s very fast. This is the first season for Lobato on the World Tour and after a difficult start, he’s now showing great shape and matching results. He came close to the stage win a couple of times in Bayern Rundfahrt last month and he also made Top3 on the first stage of Tour de Luxembourg two weeks ago. Like the rest of the Euskaltel team, Juanjo Lobato had a horrible start to the Tour de France preparation with the death of Rufino Murguíal - the team’s masseur. Euskaltel haven’t had a good season so far and they desperately need positive experiences in this year’s Tour. I doubt Lobato can win against the other top sprinters but I expect him to show Euskaltel's name in the Top10.
Greipel, Kittel and Cavendish are all on the same level as I see it right now but having to pick only one, I’ll say Cavendish takes his first Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France.
Favorite: Mark Cavendish
Joker: Juanjo Lobato
For live race coverage go to Steephill.tv.
For live race coverage go to Steephill.tv.
Just like during the Giro d’Italia this year, I once again have the chance to bring you daily “Fly Through” previews from Global Cycling Network. Here is Stage 1: