Sunday will mark the end of an era for Paris-Tours, as the race finishes on the famous Avenue de Grammont for the last time. With work starting on a new tram line in Tours next spring, the famous boulevard and its wide 2.7km-long finishing straight will be the scene of one last, frantic classic finale.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) will be on the start-line seeking a third consecutive win in the race, but it remains to be seen how he and the other riders who have made the long trek back north from the world championships in Australia will have recovered. As usual, the race should see a fascinating battle between breakaways and the sprinters’ teams as the peloton hurtles towards Tours.
Sandwiched between the patriotic fervour of the world championships and the picturesque beauty of the Tour of Lombardy, Paris-Tours has often struggled for attention since the UCI redrew the international calendar in 1995.
While popular imagination pictures the testing Italian course along the shores of Lake Como as being perpetually suffused in the rosy hue of low autumnal sunshine, the French classic has earned the unfair status as a bland sprinters’ race run-off under skies that are forever charcoal grey.
The reality is a somewhat different. While the 1960s’ succession of high speed editions helped Paris-Tours build a reputation as the “Sprinters’ Classic”, and while the race endured route and name changes through the 70s and 80s (including Blois-Chaville, as won by Sean Kelly in 1984), it has gained a new lease of life in the last decade or so. Rather than being a race purely for the fast men, Paris-Tours has often developed into an intriguing pursuit match between the escape artists and the sprinters.
Over the past 15 years, victories from sprint royalty such as Nicola Minali (1995, 1996), Erik Zabel (2003, 2005) and Alessandro Petacchi (2007) have been increasingly interspersed with wins for usurping breakaways.
In 2001, Richard Virenque came back from suspension to take a win that marked the blurred watershed moment between his dubious past and his lucrative future as a Eurosport analyst, while his fellow countrymen Jacky Durand (1998) and Fréderic Guesdon (2006) have also grabbed plucky victories.
In the past two seasons, Philippe Gilbert showcased his obvious natural class with two sparkling victories in the event. Last year he outsprinted Tom Boonen as part of a three-up break, while in 2008 he bridged to an earlier escape in the closing kilometres and managed to stay just clear of the peloton on the Avenue de Grammont.
Indeed, Gilbert’s double is as compelling a demonstration as any of how the late-season classic has improved immeasurably as a spectacle since the demise of the World Cup in 2004. In another era, Gilbert would have been a contender for that season-long crown and may well have passed up on the possibility of winning Paris-Tours in order to mark his rivals, as riders such as Johan Museeuw (who previously won the race in 1993) to Michele Bartoli routinely did in the late nineties.
The long, wide finishing straight of the Avenue de Grammont seems almost specifically designed to host a bunch sprint, but the sprinters must earn the right to enjoy that particular playground. La Loupe replaces Chartres as the start town (like the more illustrious Paris-Roubaix, the race has long abandoned the notion of beginning in the French capital itself) and an early break should go soon after the flag is dropped.
If the wind is from the east, the peloton will chug along contentedly behind. If it comes from the west, echelons may form as the day wears on. In either scenario, the serious racing will begin when the peloton crosses the Loire in the shadow of the storied chateau at Amboise, 63km from the line.
The pace will gradually ratchet up as the early break’s advantage begins to dwindle over the Côte de Crochu 29.5km from the line and as the puncheurs do battle for position ahead of the succession of short, sharp climbs in the race’s finale.
In the closing 11km, the riders face the newly-added Côte de Beau-Soleil as well as the Côte de l’Epan and Côte du Petit Pas d’Ane, and it was over such terrain that Gilbert sparked his race-winning moves of the past two years. The final climb comes just 4km from the line, and all but guarantees a thrilling chase between the peloton and a breakaway through the streets of Tour and all the way down the Avenue de Grammont.
Picking contenders for this year’s Paris-Tours is a difficult task, given the amount of riders who have been travelling back to Europe from Australia during the week. 2009 winner Philippe Gilbert is among their number, and while his courageous display at the Worlds suggests that his form is as good as it was last year, the Belgian has admitted that the Tour of Lombardy is a more realistic target. If he falters, his Omega Pharma-Lotto team could count on sprinter Greg Van Avermaert or young Adam Blythe, who impressed in taking victory at the Circuit Franco-Belge recently.
Tom Boonen (Quick Step) was second on the Avenue de Grammont last time around, but having just made a comeback from a lengthy layoff at Franco-Belge, the former world champion will be happy simply to get some more miles in his legs before ending his season. His French teammate Sylvain Chavanel may well lead the Quick Step challenge on the day, although he struggled in Geelong.
Worlds silver medallist Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) is another man clearly in fine form, and he could play his cards either in a final sprint or by latching onto a break in the hectic closing kilometres. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Doimo) ultimately disappointed in Geelong, but the shorter course of Paris-Tours might suit the youngster better. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) will also be on hand, looking to put the disappointment of missing out on Worlds selection behind him.
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) has been well-placed in recent editions of the race, but as with Gilbert, much will depend on how well he rests this week. After Mario Cipollini’s questioning of his credentials to lead the Italian Worlds team, however, Pozzato will be keen to take a big win. Katusha will also have the evergreen Robbie McEwen in their line-up, primed for a sprint finish.
Other sprinters who could have their say are Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil), Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ), Gerard Ciolek (Milram) and Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun), although world champion Thor Hushovd and his Cervélo team were not invited to the race. Feillu, in particular, was a solid 10th in Geelong, and the finish in Tours is well-suited to the Frenchman’s characteristics.
Outside of the two sprinters, on paper a whole host of French riders ought to be in contention on Sunday. The course of Paris-Tours is well suited to strong men who can look after themselves in a tactical finale, such as Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox-Bouygues Telecom) or Sandy Casar (FDJ), but whether they can replicate their July form is another matter. The Bbox-Bouygues Telecom team ought to be on a high after the news that Europcar has come on board to sponsor the team in 2011, although it may well prove that French champion Thomas Voeckler has already fulfilled his ample quota of heroics on and off the bike in recent weeks.