Tour de France 2017: Stage 4 preview

Mondotf-les-Bains - Vittel, 207.5km

Never forget that the Tour de France, as well as being a sporting event, is a commercial entity. According to the historian Les Woodland in his book Cycling Heroes, the Tour was once described in the leftwing newspaper L'Humanité as a "gaudy monument to capitalism". So while Vittel is a nice spot for a stage finish, a small town tucked into the verdant woods of the Vosges and the source of healthy spring water, the company which bottles and distributes the water is also owned by Nestlé and is one of the 'Tour Club' – the five main sponsors of the Tour de France.

Vittel has history in the Tour. It was the symbolic location chosen by the Tour organisers for the Grand Départ in 1968. The previous year, Tom Simpson's amphetamine-fuelled death had shaken the sport, and as a gesture of belief in clean sport, it was decided that the mineral water town of Vittel would be an appropriate place to start over. (The doping didn't stop there.)

It's likely that there will be a bunch sprint. This is one of only four realistic opportunities for the sprinters before the first rest day and with La Planche des Belles Filles looming tomorrow, it's unlikely that the sprinters will allow this stage to slip through their fingers. There's not much in the way of hills en route. The single categorised climb tops out at just under 40km to go, but at this point the bunch will still be regulating the break's lead, rather than actively chasing. The only obstacle to the sprinters will be their rivals and the GC teams, who have in the last few years developed a tactic of riding hard at the front to keep their leader out of trouble (and in a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, actually made the likelihood of trouble significantly higher).

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Baden Cooke says

"Stage 4 from Mondorf-les-Bains to Vittel will see riders on French soil for the first time in the 2017 Tour. Without major climbs, this stage should offer a second opportunity for the fast men. Crosswinds could quite well be a factor on the roads of Meurthe-et-Moselle, this may be a point of danger for the smaller climbers who have eyes on the overall title.

"With the intermediate sprint somewhat late at only 50km from the finish, the sprinter's teams may well leave a breakaway out in front so that the points can be taken and the fast men can save their legs to fight for the stage victory. After 207.5km the riders will arrive in Vittel for a false flat slightly uphill sprint."

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