It is the first of three stages in the south of France that are usually raced under a hot summer sun. However, Tuesday’s stage could be hit by crosswinds mid-stage and then heavy rainstorms for the final two hours, possibly creating more of the havoc, crashes, and chaos that has so often characterised the 2021 Tour de France.
The stage route dives down the valley from winter the Olympic city Albertville to Chambery, then via the Isere, the Drone hills, and finally into the Rhone.
The early kilometres pass through the home patch of the AG2R Citroën team who celebrated their 20th Tour de France stage victory with Ben O’Connor and will be hoping Greg van Avermaet can impress in the south of France once again.
There is just one categorised climb during the stage, the fourth-cat Col de Couz after 58km soon after Chambéry, which could inspire the break of the day or a fight for the solitary king of the mountains point.
Interestingly the intermediate sprint comes soon after, at 82km, with the sprint actually atop a short climb in La Placette. This favours the better climbers like Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), Michael Matthews (Bike Exchange), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) rather than current green jersey leader Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
The stage route then drops to the valley onto exposed roads before the Rochefort-Samson climb offers a chance to split the break or hurt the pure sprinters once again.
Wind from the west is expected, making it a cross/headwind in the final 50km.
The overall contenders will be hoping for a safe, steady ride south before the double assault of Mont Ventoux on Wednesday but the road to Valence is ideal echelon country. The risk of rain could also transform the conditions very rapidly and make the stage far more selective than the profile suggests.
Valence last hosted a Tour de France finish in 2018 when Sagan beat all the pure sprinters. In 2015 Andre Greipel beat fellow German John Degenkolb when both were at their best after riding east from Mende.
Can anyone beat Mark Cavendish?
The two Alpine stages of the weekend were a major obstacle for all the peloton and especially the sprinters. Some made the time cut, others did not or decided to abandon the Tour, thinking of other goals.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) did not start Sunday’s stage, preferring to rest up and prepare for the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics. His teammate and stage 3 winner Tim Merlier also left the race.
The timekeeper's axe did fall on Arnaud Démare and his Groupama-FDJ lead-out man Jacopo Guarnieri. Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) also failed to make it, while Cyclingnews witnessed Greipel sprint to the finish to fight to live another day by just a few seconds.
The best green jersey contenders had fewer problems in the mountains, with Colbrelli even in the break on the mountain stage to Tignes. He finished an incredible third, confirming his new found climbing skills.
Other sprinters to watch include Sagan, Matthew. Greipel, Cees Bol (Team DSM), Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo), and Danny van Poppel (Intermarche-Wanty).
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) will also surely be in the mix now that he no longer has to ride for Primož Roglič. He does not have the multi-skilled form of last year’s Tour de France but is always fast and well placed, even without his own lead out.
Mark Cavendish is the rider to beat for so many reasons.
His two wins in Fougeres and Chateauroux and the near-perfect lead-outs from Deceuninck-QuickStep mean Cavendish has won 33 Tour de France stages and is just two wins away from equalling Eddy Merckx's win record at the Tour de France.
Cavendish understandably doesn’t consider himself the Cannibal’s equal but if he wins in Valence he will not be able to escape talk of the record.
The sprinters and their teams are aware that the breakaway riders always begin to gain the upper hand after the first week.
If Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) goes all-in on the stage in the absence of Caleb Ewan, and his baroudeur buddies join him, then the sprinters’ team will have to work hard to defend their chances of a sprint finish. The risk of wind, echelons, and rain only tip the probability of escape towards the attackers.
Cavendish was unduly concerned that the abandoning and elimination of Ewan, Merlier, and Démare would deprive Deceuninck-QuickStep of vital help they may need to ensure a break didn't snatch the opportunity away from the fast men.
Indeed, he was again in contempt of his rivals’ work ethic, perhaps knowing that Tim Declercq will again step up and do the hard work on the front in pursuit of any breakaway.
"There are a lot fewer sprinters, that's for sure, but whether that has an effect on catching the breakaway, I don't know, because there were really only two teams who were chasing the breakaway anyway," Cavendish said.
"We've got a strong group, an experienced group that knows how to control a race and we just have to hope for the best."
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