Tony Martin turned his fortune around with a great ride on the cobbles and deny the many sprinters who had made the selection, a rare chance to go for glory in a race that doesn't give them many opportunities. Tomorrow they will finally get a chance but with wind and rain on the menu, it could turn into a more selective affair that most predict.
The first week of the Tour de France is usually a sprint festival but this year the fast finishers don’t have much room to shine. Many missed their first chance in stage 2 and now they have had to wait until stage 5 where a bigger separation has been made, the race should be a bit calmer and the script a bit more predictable.
In fact, stage 5 has all the characteristics of a classic sprint stage and it should give the GC riders a small chance to relax after several days of constant stress and the pure sprinters a rare chance to shine. The course brings the riders over 189.5km from Arras to Amiens and first consists of a small loop on the southern outskirts of Lens and then a long southerly run to the city of Peronne which comes just after the feed zone. This part of France is mainly flat and even though there are rolling hills along the way, there are no categorized climbs. Before they reach Peronne, the riders will contest the intermediate sprint at the 89.5km mark and it is straightforward flat affair that comes at the end of a long straight road of almost 2km.
Having passed Peronne, the riders will head in a westerly direction as they start their journey towards Bretagne where the weekend stages will be held. They will digress a bit from the straight road to Amiens as they will head north, west and south before they complete their westerly journey. However, it does nothing to change the flat terrain.
The finale has a technical sting in its tail. Having followed a long, straight road with three roundabouts, the riders will turn left with 2.3km to go to get onto another long, straight avenue. However, they will take a sharp right-hand turn with just 480m to go to get onto the 7m wide finishing straight, meaning that positioning is hugely important. The road is not completely flat as it will be slightly uphill from 1.5km to 500m to go before the riders turn onto the slightly descending finishing straight.
Amiens last hosted a stage finish in 1999 when Mario Cipollini beat Tom Steels and Jaan Kirsipuu in a bunch sprint, with the latter picking up bonus seconds that consolidated his overall lead.
Today the riders mostly avoided the feared rainy conditions but tomorrow they might be back on wet roads. At the start of the stage, it will be rather cloudy and there is a 40% risk of rain in the first half of the stage. As they get closer to the finish, it should become sunnier and the risk of rain will decrease. Furthermore, it won’t be very hot as the maximum temperature will be just 21 degrees.
Furthermore, it will be pretty windy, wind a relatively strong wind blowing from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have a crosswind for most of the time until they turn into a headwind with 25km to go. The wind be blowing against the riders until they turn into a crosswind less than 2km from the finish and then there is again a headwind on the finishing straight.
The cobbles failed to made much of a difference between the overall contenders as most of them finished in the front group. Pierre Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal missed the selection and Daniel Martin and Thibaut Pinot had bad luck but otherwise the key names were all with the best. While Nibali will rue a missed opportunity, riders like Froome, Contador and Quintana are probably just happy to have survived the day.
At the same time, Tony Martin turned his misfortune around and most will agree that the German deserves to finally be in yellow. With a few less selective stages coming up, he should be able to defend it all the way to the Mur de Bretagne and might even take it back in the team time trial if he loses it in stage 8.
At the same time the attention turns to the fast riders. The Tour de France was never going to be the usual sprint festival that it has often been in the past. With just five real sprint opportunities during three weeks of hard racing – and the one in stage 15 including quite a bit of climbing before the flat finish – it is already evident that some of the fast men are starting to feel the frustration. Apart from Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan, they all missed the chance in stage 2 and now there are just two opportunities for the pure sprinters before they get to the Pyrenees or – if everything goes wrong in stage 15 – before Paris.
Tomorrow’s stage stands out as one of the easiest of the entire race. In fact only stages 2 and 21 have a flatter profile and with no categorized climbs at all it stands out as one of the best opportunities for the fast men in the entire race. On paper it should be a pretty controlled affair but the first week of the Tour de France is always dangerous and unpredictable.
Most of the GC riders have marked the first rest day out as the time to take stock of the situation and check how they have survived what many have described as a series of one-day classics. However, most have mostly focused on the three first stages which offered wind, the Mur de Huy and the cobbles while they hoped things to calm down a bit after stage 4.
It is certainly true stage 5 doesn’t pose the same threats as the previous stages but that doesn’t mean that it will be a calm affair. Of course some riders have already lost quite a bit of time but of the original GC contenders, only Wilco Kelderman has completely shelved his GC ambitions. This means that the fight for position will be just as intense as it has been the past few days and the fact that some of the sprinters are starting to feel the frustration will only make things worse.
If the riders still had the summerlike conditions of last Saturday, there was a real chance that tomorrow’s stage could be a relatively pleasant ride until they got to the finale. However, the weather forecasts couldn’t have been much worse. Wet roads and crosswinds for most of the first 140km will make it another chaotic affair where crashes are again destined to happen. There will be no room to rest mentally throughout the stage as the danger could loom around any single corner. Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff-Saxo have proved that they are prepared to grab every unexpected opportunity and they have shown that they have the teams to make the peloton split.
We have been pretty surprised that echelons were formed in both stages 2 and 3. Usually the high level of fitness and attentiveness mean that it requires very strong winds to split the peloton in the Tour de France. Of course the conditions were tough in stage 2 but yesterday the peloton was surprising inattentive, probably because of the race neutralization. Usual logic would predict that the wind is not strong enough to split the field in tomorrow’s stage but it won’t be impossible. In any case, there is always a big risk that crashes will create a selection just like in stage 2 when Nibali lost contact with the front group.
With no mountain points on offer and a flat profile, there is no real incentive to go on the attack and so we can expect the first attempt to be the right one. Again teams like Europcar, IAM, Bora-Argon 18 and Bretagne are likely to be part of the action but the group won’t get much of an advantage. In recent Tours, Etixx-QuickStep have never given much leeway to the front group and they won’t do so tomorrow. This time they might get some help from Lotto Soudal who were surprisingly passive in stage 2 where they left all the work to the Belgian rivals. We can expect Michal Golas, Julien Vermote and Thomas De Gendt to spend most of the day of the front of the peloton.
If the winds are strong and the roads are wet, it will be another very nervous affair and this will automatically make the racing very fast. In fact, it is likely that the sprint teams don’t have to do any real chase work as they will be swarmed by the GC teams who want to stay near the front. As it has been the case in the first few stages, this means that the break will maybe be caught relatively early and this means that there could be maximum points on offer for the sprinters in the intermediate sprint. André Greipel, John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, Bryan Coquard and Mark Cavendish will contest the sprint while Kristoff and Bouhanni seemed to have shelved their green ambitions. However, it is always a delicate affair to find the right balance between picking up points and saving energy for the finale. Degenkolb has proved that he is not really willing to hold much back while the pure sprinters seem to be more keen to save energy.
When the riders turn into a headwind with 25km to go, things are likely to calm down a bit as there is no longer any risk of echelons. On the other hand, the nervousness will increase as they get closer to the finish so there won’t be much of an opportunity to relax in what could be a fast stage.
In the end, it will come down to a sprint but it remains to be seen how many riders are left after echelons and crashes have taken their toll. It is always a game of luck to stay in contention but the stage is destined to be won by a fast finisher.
With a headwind in the finale, it is very important to time everything correctly and this will make experience and strong lead-outs very important. In general, the finale is not very technical as it mostly consists of long, straight roads but it will be very important to be in a good position in the final turn with 480m to go. If you are far back at that point, it will be impossible to win the stage. The late turn make team support and acceleration more important than top speed.
Mark Cavendish came up short in stage 2 when both he and Mark Renshaw made mistakes by going too early. The Brit is extremely motivated to finally break the drought that has now gone on since 2013. A number of factors suggest that he should have a lot bigger chance in this stage and there is a big chance that he will finally be back on the top step of the podium.
On paper, only André Greipel has the speed to challenge the Brit but the German has been set back massively. Lead-out man Greg Henderson is still in the race but after he crashed in stage 3 he is in no condition to play any role in the finale. That is a huge disadvantage as his final lead-out man will now be Jens Debusschere who has no previous experience in that role. Furthermore, Debusschere even crashed a few days ago and even though his injuries are not major, it might hamper him a bit. Finally, Adam Hansen is also suffering from injuries and won’t be able to do his usual job of setting Marcel Sieberg up for the lead-out.
It was always going to be an exciting battle between Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal who clearly have the strongest trains in the race but now the latter team has no chance to challenge their rivals. With Tony Martin, Zdenek Stybar and Michal Kwiatkowski to launch the train of Trentin-Renshaw-Cavendish, they have by far the biggest amount of firepower and they have huge experience. Renshaw is unlikely to make a similar mistake and should time things a lot better.
In this finale, positioning is key and here the lead-out gives Cavendish a massive advantage. Furthermore, the late turn is no disadvantage for the Brit who has a famous kick that allows him to get back up to speed pretty quickly. Finally, Etixx-QuickStep have the strongest classics teams and so Cavendish won’t be caught out in any splits created by crosswinds. With a weakened Lotto Soudal train, Cavendish is the obvious favourite.
André Greipel is very close to Cavendish when it comes to top speed but he has a harder time in the fight for position. He usually relies heavily on his lead-out train and so the injuries in his team are a huge disadvantage. Furthermore, the late turn is not an advantage for a power sprinter like Greipel who usually needs a longer finishing straight to really shine.
On the other hand, the German is clearly in excellent condition and he knows that he has a big chance to win the green jersey this year. This will make him even more motivated to take a few risks in the finale and if he can get through the finale turn close to Cavendish, he has the speed to win.
Alexander Kristoff was set back by bad luck in the first two road stages. He was caught up behind Bouhanni’s crash in stage 2 and so missed out in the crosswinds which very rare. Furthermore, he thought the race was neutralized in stage 3 and so missed another split in the wind which made him miss out on the intermediate sprint. Finally, he punctured out of the lead group in today's stage.
Tomorrow’s stage is an opportunity for him to make amends and he will benefit from the tough conditions that will make the race harder. Usually he is not fast enough to beat the likes of Cavendish and Greipel in this kind of sprint but in a race of attrition he is unbeatable. Furthermore, he is very strong in the fight for position and has an excellent lead-out train with Luca Paolini and Jacopo Guarnieri. Unfortunately, he will miss Marco Haller who is suffering from injuries and he doesn’t like this kind of late turn. However, if his two Italian teammates can get him into a good position for the final turn, he won’t be far off.
For more than a year, Peter Sagan was far from his usual level but now he is back to his best. The Slovakian has been riding amazingly well in this race and is knocking on the door for his first stage win. Usually he is not fast enough to beat Cavendish and Greipel in this kind of sprint but if the race is hard he has a chance. That was evident in stage 2 where he almost took the win. Furthermore, he likes a late turn where he can use his bike-handling skills and acceleration. He is great at positioning himself and if he can get onto Cavendish’s wheel through the final turn, he could produce a surprise.
Another great bike-handler is Nacer Bouhanni. The Frenchman likes the technical finales where he can use his good acceleration and his great positioning. He is not far from the best when it comes to top speed and he has a better kick than most. He was set back by a bruised rib suffered at the French championships but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. He is clearly in excellent condition as he proved in the battle for the tricolore and he is eager to finally show himself in this race. He doesn’t need a big train and if Geoffrey Soupe can just keep him protected, he has the skills to finish it off.
John Degenkolb is clearly in great condition but this sprint is not made for him. He usually needs a long finishing straight and prefers it to be slightly uphill. Furthermore, he is not very good at positioning himself and very often loses contact with his lead-out train in the finale. He is hampered by the fact that Giant-Alpecin miss Tom Veelers in this race and so don’t have their best train. To make things even worse, Ramon Sinkeldam even crashed in stage 3. It won’t be easy for Degenkolb to beat the faster riders in this kind of finish but as he is one of the fastest riders in the peloton, it won’t be impossible.
Arnaud Demare was not expected to get much room to chase success in this race but as Thibaut Pinot is now considering a new approach, the former French champion might get a bit more support. He has had a terrible season so far and has only won two stages in the Tour of Belgium but he seems to be in pretty good condition, putting in a strong attack in the hard French championships. He is not very good at positioning himself and will miss William Bonnet dearly. However, he likes these technical finales and he is one of the select few with the speed to win the stage.
Sam Bennett has the potential to become one of the sprinting greats and he beat most of the stars in the Tour of Qatar this year before beating Bouhanni and Degenkolb twice in the Bayern Rundfahrt. This year he doesn’t have much pressure to perform as he will mainly try to get experience and he has not had the best build-up as he had to skip some races due to illness. He only has Zakkari Dempster to support him in the finale and that won’t make it easy in this technical finale. He won’t win the stage but he has the speed to do well.
Bryan Coquard is one of the fastest riders in the peloton but he usually suffers a lot when it comes to positioning. This is a big disadvantage in this sprint and he doesn’t have the best lead-out to help him overcome his deficit. Angelo Tulik and Yohann Gene will do their best but it won’t be easy for Coquard who also needs a harder finish to really excel. However, he is in great condition and has improved his positioning a lot.
Finally, Davide Cimolai deserves a mention. The Lampre-Merida rider has had an amazing season, winning a stage in Paris-Nice, and for the first time he is the protected sprinter in a grand tour. He only has Filippo Pozzato to support him but with Rui Costa’s setback he might now get a bit more help. He prefers uphill sprints and a more undulating profile so he will have better chances later in the race. However, he could already sprint into the top 5 tomorrow if he can position himself well.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Mark Cavendish
Other winner candidates: André Greipel, Alexander Kristoff
Outsiders: Peter Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni, John Degenkolb, Arnaud Demare
Jokers: Sam Bennett, Bryan Coquard, Davide Cimolai, Edvald Boasson Hagen
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