In 2010, the Dutch fans did themselves proud at the Grand Départ in Rotterdam by turning out in their tens of thousands to watch the Tour, creating a version of Alpe d’Huez’s famous Dutch Corner, only this time back at home. Yorkshire’s fans outdid them last year, with even bigger crowds. Can the Dutch fans restore national pride and give us another Grand Départ to remember?
The first road stage of the Tour is a flat run from Utrecht to the North Sea coast in the province of Zeeland and finishing almost literally out in the sea. The finish line is on Neeltje Jans, a couple of square kilometres of reclaimed land halfway along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier. Originally the island was a construction works for the dam, but now has a water park as well as the N57 road which runs along the coast between Rotterdam and Middelburg.
It barely seemed worth the Tour organisers’ while to design a profile for this stage. According to the literature, the road rises and falls between zero and six metres above sea level, finishing right by the sea at Zélande. For the second day running, there will be no King of the Mountains jersey presented – it’s the flattest start to the Tour in living memory.
There’s a plaque on the dam at Neeltje Jans which reads, “Here the tide is ruled by the wind, the moon, and us.” The sea might have been tamed by ‘us’ – mankind – but they said nothing about the wind. There’s not a hill to be seen today, yet the bunch could be cut to pieces on this stage if the wind blows. On an exposed flat road, crosswinds slice and dice the field more effectively than any hill.
This happens because of the advantage offered by sheltering behind other riders. Into a headwind, or when there is no wind, riding directly behind another rider is significantly easier than riding on one’s own. If the wind comes from the side, the slipstream behind a rider shifts to the side, so the sheltering rider has to move correspondingly to the side with the front wheel overlapping the back wheel, depending on the angle and strength of the wind.
A road is only a certain number of metres wide, so once riders have fanned across the road in an echelon, there is no space for any more, and the peloton splits. The stronger and more tactically aware teams can control this process. The worst thing riders caught behind can do is panic, and trying to sprint onto the back of an echelon is ineffective – the only thing to do is wait for the next echelon and hope that it comes back together.
The last time strong crosswinds hit the Tour, in St Amand Montrond in 2013, Mark Cavendish won the stage. The time before that, in La Grande Motte in 2009, Mark Cavendish won the stage. If the wind blows on this stage in 2015, we’d say Mark Cavendish has a good chance of winning the stage.
Hennie Kuiper's view
“The stage in Zeeland could turn out to be very special if we have some wind and rain. We could even end up seeing some of the favourites losing all their hopes in the overall classification. Cycling is a sport of tactics and teamwork, and the teams are so strong now that if they work together well they can create some problems if the weather’s bad. There could well be crashes, which would split the peloton into several groups, and that’s when the tactics really come into play. If you’re a favourite and you find yourself in the second group, it’s quite easy to lose two, three, four, even five minutes. You never know what could happen.”
Stats & Facts
- The opening road stage of the Tour has finished in a bunch sprint every year since 1993, except 2002, when Rubens Bertogliati, now a DS at IAM, jumped away for the win.
- Between 1986 and 1992, the opening road stage did not finish in a sprint once.
- Marcel Kittel has won the opening road stage in two Tours. Eight other riders have achieved this in the postwar era, but the record is held by André Darrigade, who won five between 1956 and 1961. Nobody else has won more than two
0km - Start Utrecht at 13:15
80.5km - Sprint Rotterdam at 15:35
166km - Finish Zélande at 17:26
The text in this preview first appeared in the July edition of Procycling magazine