Mont-Saint-Michel – Utah Beach (Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont)
The opening stage of this year’s Tour de France dispenses with the traditional Grand Tour prologue, and instead the first yellow jersey wearer will almost certainly be a sprinter. It also means that time gaps will be tight at the top of the leaderboard after today, so the jersey-wearer can expect to enjoy only one day in yellow before another class of riders takes on stage 2’s uphill finish.
The riders are in for a fairly straightforward start to the race, departing from Mont-Saint-Michel and taking a reasonably flat route up the coast, alongside the channels islands Jersey and Guernsey. Actually, the Tour arrived in Mont-Saint-Michel as recently as 2013, when Tony Martin won the individual time trial, and Froome followed in second to cement an early lead in what would be his successful yellow jersey campaign. This start may well be received as a good omen to Froome.
Despite our description of ‘reasonably flat’, there are in fact two category 4 climbs to tackle within the first 40km, and the terrain undulates for the first 100km or so. These climbs will both prove entirely unproblematic for the field, and won’t much aid the first breakaway of the tour. However, it does mean that there will be a polka-dot jersey wearer at the end of stage one, so expect a handful of the usual suspects to get into the breakaway for that purpose alone. We wouldn’t rule out Thomas Voeckler or Daniel Teklehaimanot, though neither will want to waste energy too early on in a three week tour.
An intermediate sprint will take place at 118.5km, though the points on offer here, so far before the finish, will probably be mopped up by the breakaway without much show of competition. It’s then another 60km or so before the line. The riders arrive into Utah Beach, which is a first for the Tour de France, heading away from the Atlantic now — so a decent chance of a tailwind. The finish is straight and flat (in fact, there’s some slight downhill within the last few kilometres), and the roads are allegedly good, so we can expect an out and out sprint from the most powerful man in the pack.
As we’ve noted in our jersey preview, it’s an extremely strong field that will fight for the sprints this year. Peter Sagan will want to get an early start on the sprint points classification, but he’ll need to play a tactical masterclass if he wants this first win. He’s an extraordinary bike handler and a powerful finisher, but Sagan has never quite managed to stack up with the best of the best pure sprinters, and we’d expect a third place tops from the Slovak. Likewise, Alexander Kristoff might have a hard time finding his way to the front of such an elite bunch, but we don’t expect him to be far off the pace. Mark Cavendish will be hoping for better luck than he’s had on the opening sprints in recent years; in 2014 he crashed on home soil on the finishing straight, and last year he came fourth behind Fabian Cancellara. He narrowly missed out on the British Championship jersey last week, courtesy of an unexpectedly strong sprint from Adam Blythe (who will not be here), so whilst a podium is likely, he might not be favourite for stage win. A man who did win his National Championship race is André Greipel, who is showing spectacular form at the moment. John Degenkolb opened his sprint far too early in that race, losing the pace and coming in 14th, so he’ll be looking to make amends here. And who can look past the third German sprint heavyweight, Marcel Kittel? Kittel, of course, won four stages in the TdF ’15, bookending his victories with the first stage as well as the Champs-Elysées finale. Kittel is rightly the bookmakers’ favourite tomorrow, but despite this, we’re looking at the German champ. If Greipel plays the tactical game we saw last week, he should be able to follow the right wheel to get him to the line in time.
For outsiders, look to Michael Matthews, who we can’t count as a favourite purely because there are too many better sprinters, but who won’t be far outside contention in any situation. Matthews is currently 66/1, and, with a recent points jersey win in the Critérium du Dauphiné, he might have the form needed to surprise. There’s also France’s Bryan Coquard, who might be very motivated for such a prestigious win in his own country. We also like Dylan Groenewegen and Sam Bennett; if either of these men find they are extremely well-placed in the endgame, they may well surface with a lucky big win. For a real long shot, look at Greg Van Avermaet, currently at 150/1. GVA isn’t the ideal build for this kind of pure sprint, but in fact he appears to be BMC’s dedicated sprinter for the Tour. With that in mind, plus the exceptional form he’s been in and out of all year, he may well hit that podium. An even longer shot would be the Daniel Mclay, the ‘other’ British sprinter at the Tour. He’s picked up some great results in France so far this year. He’ll have his work cut out for him just to make the Top 10, but he’s certainly got the skills to fight his way to the front in the final hundred metres.