Former sprinters Erik Zabel and Frederic Moncassin recalled memories of their duels in the 1990s when they spoke at the start and finish of stage 11 from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau.
Unlike their famous sprint finishes when they clashed for Gan and Telekom, respectively, the two agreed that the finish in Saint-Fargeau suited Thor Hushovd and Oscar Friere over the eventual winner Mark Cavendish. However Moncassin, who won two stages in the 1996 Tour and was once headed butted by Zabel during a sprint, went further, picking Hushovd as his favourite for the green jersey.
"Thor is my favourite," said Moncassin at the départ in Vatan. "He’s better than Cavendish on the climbs. Cavendish is good on the flat sprints but in the mountains it’s very difficult for him to gain points. You look at a guy like Thor, and as a sprinter he pretty much has it all. He can use his power on the flat, in the hills and get over the mountains in good condition. I don’t think Cavendish, for all his speed, can quite do that. If you want a prediction I’d even go so far as saying that the green jersey will be decided before the final stage into Paris."
At the finish, Zabel, who is now part of the Columbia-HTC set up, agreed that the final straight wasn’t best suited to Cavendish’s skills after the Manxman was beaten in the uphill sprint in Barcelona: "Barcelona was a different sprint in that it was longer and steeper but I still thought that today was better for someone like Friere or Hushovd and that it was a bit too steep. But Cavendish did it with a perfect lead-out from his train. They did a super job once again."
Moncassin, meanwhile, lamented on the lack of sprinting talent at this year’s race, something that he believes wasn’t the case during his and Zabel’s pomp. "I don’t think there are many sprinters in the Tour this year. Once you look past Hushovd and Cavendish there is Farrar, who is okay, Boonen is misfiring and Friere isn’t as strong as he was last year. Cavendish is the best pure sprinter here but there isn’t that much competition."
On the topic of Boonen, who is without a stage win this year, Moncassin gave a glimmer of hope: "For Boonen it’s difficult. Before the race he didn’t know if he was going to be here or not and that would have effected his preparation. Saying that, I think that he can ride himself into form as he’s getting racing miles in his legs each day. He’ll be a real force for the Champs Elysees. That’s a realistic goal for him."
Moncassin, who now works for French media also hit out at the lack of French sprinters in this year’s race. "The best French sprinters are Sebastian Chavanel and Jimmy Casper but neither of them is here. Now the best French hope in the sprints is Romain Feillu, but he’s not a thoroughbred sprinter. He can go for hot spot sprints but in the final kilometres he’s not the type of guy who can win against Cavendish or Hushovd."