Tour of Britain 2017 race preview

Worlds contenders tune up for Bergen

A new sponsor and news that every stage will be shown live from start to finish are the latest indications that the Tour of Britain continues to grow in stature, and that's reflected, moreover, in the strength of the start list for 14th edition of the modern incarnation of the race.

A big reason for that is a growing realisation among the international peloton that you could do far worse for World Championships preparation. With the race taking place in early September and the Worlds later in the month (apart from last year), there has been a noticeable trend of riders swerving the increasingly mountain-oriented three-week Vuelta a España in favour of the more explosive week-long stint in Britain.

While Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet are heading to Canada for the pair of WorldTour one-day races, the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Philippe Gilbert, Alexander Kristoff, and Edvald Boasson Hagen will be here, on the roads of England, Scotland, and Wales, fine-tuning their form ahead of a punchy Worlds course in Norway.

The 2017 Tour of Britain is set to be a sprint-friendly week where the overall classification will hinge on a 16km time trial, but Britain's grippy and undulating roads, combined with teams of just six riders will, as always, conspire to make the racing more open and entertaining than the road book might suggest.

A couple of trends are bucked as the capital city of London is eschewed for only the second time, and there'll be no summit finish either. Big climbs are in short supply on a route that, while rolling and punchy, offers up a wealth of opportunities for the sprinters.

With 10 bonus seconds on offer for the winner of each stage, it's not inconceivable that a sprinter could be in the mix for the overall, if one such rider dominates the bunch kicks, though the time trial and the hillier stages – notably on the penultimate day into Cheltenham – make this a race that, true to type, could go any number of ways. 

The route

The race starts in Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise, with one of the stages that's a little less clear cut as far as a sprint is concerned. The 188km stage packs in 2525m of altitude gain and features the longest climb of this year's Tour of Britain – Redstone Rigg. Appearing in the first quarter of the stage, however, it's unlikely to have a huge impact, and it will be left to a pair of climbs on the 79km finishing loop around the Scottish Borders for any damage to be done. The climbs of Scottsview and Dingleton appear in quick succession, the latter topping out with 24km to go and followed by a descent and a fast run back into town.

A similar level of altitude gain greets the riders on stage 2 – the longest of the race at 211km – but this time the finale is much flatter. The climbing is pretty much all done in the first half as the route heads towards the Northumberland coast, before hugging the coastline on its way south to Blythe, where a finishing loop of 20km will give the sprint trains a chance to get organised. The only thing that could derail them would seem to be high winds.

The start and finish of stage 3 are scarcely 7km apart but the 178km route winds through Lincolnshire before finishing in Scunthorpe. Some late punchy sections will complicate matters, as will an uphill drag in the finale, but the sprinters should be to the fore. At 165km, stage 4 in Nottinghamshire is the shortest road stage of this year's race, and the category-three climb at Eaton Wood with over 40km to go shouldn't be enough to throw the sprinters off course.

Stage 5 is the most crucial stage from a general classification perspective, and there's a good chance that the rider that wins here will win the race overall. It's a 16km time trial in Essex – so it's got Alex Dowsett written all over it. The route heads along the coast before looping up and around and back along the coast. It's short, flat, and not-at-all technical, so the gaps might not be huge but in a race of tight margins they may well be significant.

Stage 6 is another largely flat route where it's difficult to see past a bunch sprint, but stage 7 could be a different story. The 185km route from Hemel Hempstead to Cheltenham packs in 2370m of climbing, including a second-category climb that tops out just 9km from the line. The stage should come alive in the final 50 or so kilometres as the roads get hilly, and the climb of Bourton-on-the-Hill will soften the legs ahead of that final climb of Cleeve Hill.

The race culminates in Wales and while the terrain in the south of the country naturally throws up some climbing, the run-in to the capital, Cardiff, is flat for 50km so we should see a final hurrah for the sprinters. 

The contenders

We should probably start with the fast men. Mark Cavendish, Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani, Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen, and Alexander Kristoff are all here to form a cast that does justice to a route so rich in sprint opportunities, and there's enough of a mixture of youth and experience, of form and stature, to suggest the wins may be shared around.

Cavendish is making his comeback from a shoulderblade fracture sustained at the Tour de France on that infamous day Peter Sagan was disqualified, so it will be interesting to see how he's going. There are question marks over Gaviria, too, as the Colombian prodigy has barely raced since winning four stages at the Giro. He injured his knee at a recent kermesse in Belgium, too, so this is a big week for the Quick-Step rider given he has designs on the rainbow jersey.

Viviani is undoubtedly the most in-form sprinter of the moment, having won both the Hamburg and Plouay one-day races, along with two stages at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes, in the past couple of weeks. Ewan has beaten Cavendish, Gaviria, and Sagan this season but was disappointing at Hamburg and Plouay, while Groenewegen is another young talent who showed he belongs with the best with his win on the Champs Elysées at the Tour de France.

This could be a big week for Kristoff. We all remember the Norwegian debacle at last year's Worlds, and there must be tension again between him and Edvald Boasson Hagen ahead of a home Worlds and a course that suits them both. While Boasson Hagen will largely be working for Cavendish, Kristoff has the chance this week to take the spotlight and send a message to the national coaches.

In terms of the overall contenders, it's difficult to say whether that will be a pure sprinter, a pure rouleur, or a punchy classics-type rider who can time trial.

Alex Dowsett will be licking his lips at the time trial on his home turf, but he'll have to see off the world champion Tony Martin – who still hasn't won in the rainbow skinsuit this year. There's also his own teammate Jonathan Castroviejo, the Spanish champion, Canndondale-Drapac's Taylor Phinney, and BMC's Stefan Kung, not to mention LottoNL-Jumbo who have three cards for the TT in Primoz Roglic, Jos Van Emden and Victor Campenaerts.

Michal Kiwatkowski and Philippe Gilbert are two former world champions who have had extraordinary seasons and will be gearing up for Bergen. Both thrive on punchy terrain and can turn in very good short time trials. Sky also have Geraint Thomas, who won the opening time trial at the Tour de France, but he has said Kwiatkowski will be the designated leader.

 

Steve Cummings, the 2016 champion, will not be riding this time out.

The stages

Stage 1, Sunday September 3: Edinburgh – Kelso, 188km
Stage 2, Monday September 4: Kielder Water & Forest Park – Blyth, 211km
Stage 3, Tuesday September 5: Normanby Hall Country Park – Scunthorpe, 172km
Stage 4, Wednesday September 6: Mansfield – Newark-on-Trent, 175km
Stage 5, Thursday September 7: Clacton-Clacton (ITT), 16km
Stage 6, Friday September 8: Newmarket – Aldeburgh, 183km
Stage 7, Saturday September 9: Hemel Hempstead – Cheltenham, 186km
Stage 8, Sunday September 10: Worcester – Cardiff, 180km

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