Delightful uncertainty key to late-season classic

Cyclingnews' preview of the 103rd Paris-Tours

When the drama of the grand tours has passed and the leaves begin to fall, the classics riders know it's time to come out and play, and what better playground than the road from Chartres to Tours in the first week of October.

Paris-Tours is generally seen as a sprinter's haven, a race where the likes of Petacchi, McEwen and Zabel have battled it out in the past, although there's a place for those riders brave enough to chance their legs against the fast men and make a fleeting bid for victory off the front of the peloton.

Philippe Gilbert's victory in last year's edition is evidence of this - the Belgian risked all in the finale and it paid off. A look at the race's palmares shows that this is an event that can reward the strongmen of the peloton; riders such as Jacky Durand - the winner in 1998, Andrea Tafi, the 2000 victor and Erik Dekker, the Dutchman who added his name to the trophy in 2004.

In 2009 there will be no Mark Cavendish at this late-season classic so while the sprinters may be thanking the cycling gods and preparing their team trains, those with an appetite for destruction in the closing kilometres of a long day in the saddle will also be weighing their odds of a shot at the title.

A man capable of destroying the peloton is Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider singlehandedly animating the finale of the world championship road race on home roads in Mendrisio. With an unquestionable pedigree in the classics, should the Saxo Bank star get a sniff in the finale, the smart money will be on the man they call 'Spartacus'.

At 230km, this year's Paris-Tours is approximately 20km shorter than the traditional route, although it still provides enough scope for the 'Ardennes contenders' such as Alejandro Valverde, defending champion Philippe Gilbert or reigning Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez to shine on the côtes littered throughout the parcours and make their move late in the race.

The strongest team on paper must surely be Quick Step's lineup, with a provisional listing that includes Stijn Devolder, Tom Boonen and Allan Davis - the Australian has finished in the top five on two previous occasions - covering all eventualities, especially if it comes to a bunch kick in the finale.

Of the other sprinters, Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar will certainly go into the race as one of the favourites; with the support of Julian Dean, who finished seventh in 2005 and Martijn Maaskant, who has proven his pedigree in one-day races in the past, the American should be able to make use of his stellar form.

Wins in stages of the ENECO Tour, Vuelta a España and Circuit Franco Belge are indications of Farrar's current hot streak, something he'll be keen to maintain in France.

Experiened Spaniard Oscar Freire will be back for more, the runner up in 2007 hungry to add his name to the race palmares before retiring at the end of next season. Opportunities for victories are becoming increasingly limited for the three-time world champion, who continues to impress despite being the other side of 30. His Belgian teammate Nick Nuyens could well be a dark horse, although his form in 2009 wouldn't suggest as much.

Local riders should fancy their chances on Sunday, with Thomas Voeckler, 2006 winner Frédéric Guesdon, veteran Jimmy Casper or young gun Romain Feillu all capable of taking a popular win - the cycling folk in the Lort-et Cher and Indre-et-Loire departements always welcome a victory from one of their countrymen.

Despite its place at the back-end of the calendar, it's the delicious uncertainty of Paris-Tours that makes it an anticipated race. A quality field with the opportunity to secure some prestige late in the season always creates a great event befitting the end of another long year.

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