Chris Froome's salbutamol case has dominated the countdown to the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, but on Saturday the racing will finally get underway, with the sprinters set to power their way to centre stage in the expected mass sprint in Fontaney-le-Comte after a 210km road stage along the stunning Vendée coastline.
The 2017 Tour de France started with a rain-soaked time trial in Düsseldorf, with Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) taking the first yellow jersey. Mark Cavendish was the last sprinter to land the prestigious double on the opening day when he won in Saint-Marie-du-Mont, overlooking Utah Beach, in 2016. The Manxman had won 27 stages in the decade before he lined up for the start that year, but he had never worn the yellow jersey. He understandably kissed the yellow jersey with emotion on the podium.
Cavendish beat Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan and André Greipel that day two yeas ago. He will no doubt bang shoulders and sprint against them again in Fontenay-le-Comte, but a new generation of sprinters is also fighting for space, with 23-year-old Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), and 25-year-old Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) leading the way.
Also expected to be up front in the high-speed finish are Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida).
This year's Tour de France has attracted the crème de la crème of the sprinters, with only Elia Viviani (Quick-Step floors), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Sacha Modolo (EF Education Frist-Drapac) absent.
A first day in the Vendée for the sprinters
Stage 1 seems to have been made to measure for the sprinters. The start in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile will be stunning before the tension rises as the road starts to twist and turn along the Vendée coastline. The only categorised climb – at La Tranche-sur-Mer, comes after 173 kilometres of the 201km stage. It rises to just 30 metres above sea level and is just 700 metres long. It has been included to award the polka-dot jersey of the climber's competition.
The intermediate sprint, where Sagan will no doubt try to take his first points and study this year’s rivals, comes after 119km. The new bonus sprint point comes after 187.5km, with bonuses of three, two and one second awarded on the line. It will be fascinating to see if the peloton will have swept up the expected early breakaway at this point to try to take the seconds or if they prefer to wait for the final sprint that awards bonuses of 10, six and four seconds as well as the yellow jersey.
The stage heads south-east, following the coast until the Ile de Ré close to La Rochelle. A strong wind blowing from the Atlantic could spark echelons but it is July, not April, and forecasts are for light 15kph average easterly winds. Something to keep the thousands of weekend holidaymakers cool as they wait for the peloton to arrive.
Most teams and riders will be happy with a sprint finish, with the overall contenders knowing that a crash in the final three kilometres will not cost them time.
Cavendish, Kittel, Sagan and Gaviria fancy their chances
It will be fascinating to see who can survive through the late roundabouts and turns in Fontaney-le-Comte to win the first sprint of the Tour de France and so pull on the first yellow jersey.
All are fast and all have been victorious. They are separated by the weight of their palmarès rather than pure speed. Sprint finishes are high-speed and hectic enough that any one of the names above could win, but Cavendish is chasing Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage victories. He needs four more to match 'The Cannibal' but is in a race against time.
Cavendish turned 33 in May and has only won one sprint so far this season after a number of crashes and injuries. He has worked hard to find his form and will again have trusted lead-out man Mark Renshaw in his corner, but he knows that the sprints have evolved significantly in recent years, with the fight for position between the lead-out trains sparking dramatic and high-stakes sprinting. Cavendish was a victim of it all in 2017 when he clashed with Sagan on stage 5 and went down hard, fracturing his shoulder.
"There’s more depth to the sprint teams now. Ten years ago it was one team, but now there are three, four or five dedicated sprint teams at the Tour de France,” Cavendish suggested, with the reduction in team sizes from nine riders to eight also adding a complication.
"Dimension Data is one of the strongest sprint teams here. We're in a better position but it by no means makes it easy for us. I was preparing for the track and the Olympic Games in 2016 and I was a fair bit heavier with muscle. That gave me more power for the sprints but it also made going over a bridge more difficult than it would be now. I'm back training how I used to and I seem to feel fit. I just need to get some results."
Sagan is not a pure sprinter but has bike skills and speed to allow him to often have his say in fast finishes, be they on the flat or on tougher finishes. The world champion was disqualified for sparking the Cavendish crash last year and is chasing a sixth green points jersey, and so may avoid taking huge risks, especially on stage 1.
"Our goal is always to keep ourselves safe, out of trouble, out of the crashes, then if I can pick up some stages, then great. Two would be better than one," is Sagan's modus operandi for July.
Kittel won four stages at last year's Tour de France, but each time he came from behind the avoid the carnage. He has only won two sprints at Tirreno-Adriatico since moving from Quick-Step Floors to Katusha-Alpecin, with his own sprint and his lead-out train stuttering.
Gaviria has stolen Kittel's crown at Quick-Step Floors, and would love to take a haul of stage wins on his debut Tour de France and pull on that first yellow jersey. Despite Colombia's success in recent years, only one Colombian has ever pulled on the race leader's jersey: Victor Hugo Peña, back in 2003. Now Gaviria, a sprinter, can end this 15-year drought for a nation famous for its climbers and perhaps confirm himself as the best sprinter of his generation. No wonder he is nervous.
"I think all the sprinters here are thinking about that jersey," Gaviria said. "On that first day, we have a big opportunity, and we're going to try our best. But if we don't manage it, I'll try again the next day, and again the day after."
So, too, will all his sprint rivals.
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