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Tour de France 2021: Stage 1 finish offers perfect battleground for puncheurs - Preview

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2021 - Tour of Flanders - 105th Edition - Antwerp - Oudenaarde 263,7 km - 04/04/2021 - Wout Van Aert (BEL - Jumbo - Visma) - Mathieu Van Der Poel (NED - Alpecin-Fenix) - photo Nico Vereecken/PN/BettiniPhoto©2021
Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) battle at Tour of Flanders (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

On the maps and profiles of the Tour de France, stage 1 seems like a rolling loop south into the most beautiful parts of Brittany before the first yellow jersey is put up for grabs with a sprint on the outskirts of Landerneau. 

Yet as the riders realised when they reconned the final kilometres of the stage after arriving in Brest, the 197.8km stage, and especially the uphill finish on the Côte de la Fosse aux Loup, are far more difficult than expected, heightening the tension of the Tour de France Grand Départ. 

The stage finish seems a perfect battleground for Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), but it could also test the mettle of the overall contenders who will be scared of crashes and time gaps on the first day of the Grand Tour battle. 

It will be great to watch but terrible to ride.    

“The first stage is always super hectic and very messy,” Matthews warned with a voice of experience. “It's a 3.5-kilometre uphill finish, it's going to be very hard. It's not going to be a straightforward normal bunch sprint. 

Van der Poel issued similar warnings: "It’s harder than it looks, so I’ll have to be on top of my game to try to win on a finish like this." 

His doubts are a clearer sign than of what is to come on Saturday afternoon as riders fight for the stage victory, the first yellow jersey and an important haul of 50 points in the green jersey competition. 

The Tour de France has traditionally started with a prologue time trial or a sprint, but this year race organisers wanted to add an extra twist on both stages of the opening weekend and perhaps favour Alaphilippe as much as possible.  

Sunday’s stage 2 finish on Mûr-de-Bretagne Guerlédan will be equally testing and equally rewarding, with another 50 points on offer to the winner and time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds to fight for. 

“I think it’s going to play out a lot like an Ardennes Classic, it’s going to be much more difficult than people imagined. The finale will suit guys like Van der Poel, Van Aert and Colbrelli, ” Michael Woods told Cyclingnews as he prepares to fight for a place in the general classification, replacing Chris Froome as Israel Start-Up Nation's protected leader. 

Push through Brittany for fast finish

Stage 1 starts in Brest, with the riders gathering in the lower industrial port area for the roll out at lunchtime of 197 kilometres of racing.   

The Tour has already visited the military and port city 31 times over the years and hosted the Grand Départ three other times, each one inspiring a big-name opening stage winner. In 1952 Rik Van Steenbergen took the yellow jersey in the stage to Rennes, in 1974 Eddy Merckx won the prologue on his way to his fifth and final Tour victory, then in 2008 Alejandro Valverde won in Plumelec.

Landerneau is only a short ride away up the estuary but the stage loops south in the Brittany lanes to climb a number of categorised cotes. 

The Côte de Trébéolin comes after crossing the Rade de Brest, with the other categorised climbs and a number of other rollers filling the ride south and then back north through the trees of the Parc Naturel d'Armorique. 

The only intermediate sprint comes after 135km and once past this, the riders climb into the rugged Monts d’Arrée area across very open moorland. The weather forecasts suggest cloudy grey skies after rain on Friday and so dry roads with little chance of wind, and so echelon attacks. 

The conditions should lead to a mighty sprint battle on the uphill finish after three final small cotes and a fast descent down to the river level in central Landerneau, where the jockeying for position will surely begin but will be difficult to hold.   

The Côte de la Fosse aux Loups is 3.5km long and starts at the edge of the river Elorn, with a right and left turn creating a chicane that will slow the peloton and make positioning for the acceleration onto the final climb even more important.   

The road climbs steeply for the first 500 meters at 9.4 per cent with a maximum gradient of 14 per cent at one place. It starts on the narrow Rue du Pontic, a side street up the side of the hill, much like the lower slopes of the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallonne. 

After entering the Rue Jean-Louis Rolland, the road goes straight up the hill and the gradient stays above 6 per cent for another kilometre, before very gradually flattening out in the second half. 

The steep lower section will surely inspire some attacks but the strongest teams are likely to steam roll the moves to protect their fast finishers. 

Alaphilippe could try to get away from his faster rivals and draw out a small group, but it will be a risky tactic when the likes of Jumbo-Visma are riding for Van Aert and Ineos Grenadiers are trying to protect their many leaders.    

It looks like an ideal finish for Van der Poel, who can go after an Alaphilippe-style attack and still win a power sprint to the line, just as he did to win the Amstel Gold Race in 2019.

What a story it would be if the Dutchman were to take yellow on his first day as a Tour de France rider after the yellow jersey eluded his grandfather Raymond Poulidor throughout his whole career. 

The peloton is likely to be lined out from the huge effort required on the gradual climb, with gaps possibly forming in the line that could cost some GC riders precious seconds. A single one-second gap means any riders behind are given their own time and not that of the first rider of the group. One gap could mean a time loss of several seconds, and several gaps could mean riders lose 20 seconds or more.    

Even 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is aware of the risks of the opening stage.

“Every second counts in the end but it’s more important not to lose time,” he warned.