Sunday's Paris-Tours may see a new 'style' of winner as the so-called 'sprinters' Classic' is brought bang up to date with the current gravel-riding craze thanks to the inclusion of 12.5 kilometres' worth of tracks that wind their way through picturesque vineyards inside the final 60 kilometres of the French one-day race.
Paris-Tours is famously one of the few major races that were never won by Belgium's Eddy Merckx, and 1972 Paris-Tours winner Noël Vantyghem once joked that between him and his compatriot Merckx, they'd won all the Classics.
It's a notoriously fast race, but riders hoping to finish their seasons with a flurry are going to find their average speeds knocked down a good 'kph' or two when the race hits the newly included gravel roads with 60km to go, although the total distance has been brought down from last year's 234km to 211km this year to compensate for the additional difficulties.
The introduction of the nine sectors of Vouvray appellation vineyard tracks, along with seven punchy new climbs, has the potential to completely change the face of the race, and while the usual suspects will again line up – Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), André Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) – it may be an entirely new face who comes off the gravel tracks with just over 10km to go with victory on the traditional Avenue de Grammont finish in Tours on their mind.
Certainly there's going to be a different winner to last year in that Matteo Trentin, who won on the Avenue de Grammont for Quick-Step Floors, moved to Mitchelton-Scott for 2018, and the Australian team is not one of the 23 teams lining up for this year's race, of which nine are WorldTour teams.
It would be hard to bet against a Quick-Step rider winning again, however, and the Belgian team comes to the race armed with Niki Terpstra – third last year, and a rider who's likely to enjoy the new gravel tracks – and 2008 and 2009 winner Philippe Gilbert, who recently made a winning return to racing at the GP d'Isbergues after fracturing his kneecap in that horrific crash on the descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet at the Tour de France in July.
The Belgian had originally hoped to return from his injury at Paris-Tours, but his earlier return – and surprise success at Isbergues – means he lines up at this year's race with a real chance of taking a record-equalling third victory.
"My dream would be to be at the start of Paris-Tours," he'd said in a video message in early August. "This year it's 10 years since I won there for the first time. It was the first big race I'd won in my life."
BMC's Greg Van Avermaet – winner of the 2011 edition – would have also been a huge favourite on this type of course, but the Olympic road race champion has already hung up his wheels for the year, and will next be seen in the new colours of the CCC Team in 2019.
AG2R La Mondiale's Oliver Naesen and this year's Paris-Roubaix runner-up, Silvan Dillier, will also be worth watching in the closing stages of the race – both extremely adept at getting into race-winning breakaways or making explosive moves in the closing stages of the race.
The aforementioned Démare will hope to complete his set of podium positions at the race, with the Frenchman having already taken third in 2013 and second in 2016, and look out, too, for last year's runner-up, Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb), and for the powerfully built Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) who won the seventh stage of this year's Tour de France that finished in Chartres, which is where Sunday's race starts.
Paris-Tours was first held in 1896, but has gradually moved its starting point further away from France's capital city, and will start this year some 100km south-west of Paris.
Chartres last hosted the start of the race in 2015, when Trentin also won, and before that in 2009, and this year it will be remembered as the start of a 2018 race quite different to its previous editions, when all-new climbs and challenging off-road sectors through picturesque vineyards breathed new life into one of the sport's oldest races.
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