Tour organisers ASO have resisted the urge to send the riders up the hills of one of their other races, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for stage 2 of the 2017 Tour. Perhaps the memory of 2015, when an opening week designed to resemble one Classic after another with crosswinds, hills and cobbles saw tactical stalemate, is still fresh in their minds. We wanted a surprise, but what was surprising about Chris Froome going into yellow on stage 3, then again on stage 7, for good?
The Tour is a sporadic visitor to Liège, the largest city in Wallonia, whose coal and steel industry in the 19th century made it an industrial powerhouse. Its ambitions are more modest these days – service industries, Jupiler beer, a university and decent nightlife have helped it avoid the worst of the economic funk into which much of the rest of the region sank when the coal mines and steelworks closed.
For a city famous for hosting the hilliest Classic of all, Liège seems to go out of its way to favour the riders least likely to win there in April when the Tour visits. The last two finishes in Liège have been flat prologues (the first and last of Fabian Cancellara's five opening-day Tour stage wins, in 2004 and 2012). This time, a bunch kick looks inevitable. The peloton will climb as high as 321m at Henri-Chapelle as the race crosses into the rolling wooded hills of the Ardennes, and there's a cat-four climb with 20km to go, but the sprinters may be too ambitious and fresh to let this chance be denied. The sprinters, mindful that races are won as much in the head as in the legs, and aware that momentum begets momentum at the Tour, will know that every year since 2013, the rider who has won the first sprint of the Tour has gone on to win the most stages.
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Baden Cooke says
"Stage 2 from Dusseldorf to Liege will almost certainly be a day for the sprinters. With the yellow jersey having already been decided on the stage one 14km time trial, the early control of the stage while in Germany will probably rest on the shoulders of the race leader's team.
"By the time the riders hit Belgian roads expect the sprinter's teams to be in full chase mode, bearing down on the riders that will almost certainly have escaped to fight for the right to wear the first polka dot climber's jersey of the race. With 203.5 km on many of the same roads as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the day will not be easy despite only having two category four climbs. The winner of the stage on the Boulevard de la Sauvenière will likely be still out of reach of the yellow jersey of the time trial specialists."