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Europe’s last dance: Strong field heads to Paris-Tours

One of the oldest races in Europe, Paris-Tours should be an exciting finale to the European racing calendar on Sunday.

With many of the peloton’s top stars racing this week at the Abu Dhabi Tour or already resting their legs after a long season, Europe has one last dance before the end of the 2015 racing season.

Sunday’s Paris-Tours, one of Europe’s longest-running races, helps wind down the European calendar with a sprinter’s delight.

As one of Europe’s oldest races (dating back to 1896), Paris-Tours was oddly left off the UCI WorldTour calendar a few years ago, knocking a bit of luster off the otherwise prestigious autumn race.

Some of the peloton’s biggest names are carved onto the palmares, and along with Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Tours ranks right up there for important wins among the sprinters of the pack.

The race typically comes down to a nail-biting duel between late attackers and a weary but determined peloton trying to keep the rabble under their collective thumb to set up their fast men.

The favorites

That’s not to say Paris-Tours is a race without stars. More than a few top names are putting a punctuation mark on their 2015 season this weekend in France.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step), and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) will be among the favorites. The former won in 2011, while Bouhanni will be extra motivated to conclude what’s been an up-and-down season on a high note. Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), former winner Marco Marcato (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), and Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing) will all be in with a shot if it comes down to a mass gallop.

The French are playing up a duel between Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare (FDJ), but others to watch include Gianni Meersman (Etixx-Quick-Step), Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal), Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), and Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), winner of Paris-Bourges on Thursday.

The course

The race now starts in Chartres, nearly 100km southwest of the race’s namesake. The course plows south/southwest toward its destiny in Tours, crossing the rolling farmland of the Beauce region that’s open to sometimes-fierce crosswinds. The first hour of racing gives wings to breakaways, but there is plenty of room for the sprinters’ teams to control early moves.

Though it’s often called a sprinter’s race, only five editions have ended in a mass gallop over the past 15 years. Late-race attackers find space on a string of short but intense hills in the closing 10km, with Cote de Beau Soleil and the Cote de l’Epan coming in quick succession as the course enters central Tours. Defending champion Jelle Wallays (Topsport) won with a late attack to fend off the sprinters last year.

With 5km to go, it’s a largely flat, straight shot into Tours and the famous finishing straight on the Avenue de Grammont.

The race Eddy never won

Paris-Tours is one of the few, and perhaps only, races that Eddy Merckx started but never won.

“For one reason or another, I never won it,” Merckx told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “It was at the end of the season. There was fatigue, and others always managed to win. It was never a race that fit my characteristics.”

In 1968, Merckx was just entering his prime and he could have won, but he gifted the race to a teammate as a way to thank him for sacrifices earlier in the season. Other efforts were stymied, and Paris-Tours remains the lone blot on Merckx’s otherwise pristine palmares.

“Well, you can’t win them all,” Merckx retorted when pressed on why he could never win Paris-Tours.

Long palmares

Now in its 109th edition, Paris-Tours is among the oldest races in Europe. The race started as an amateur event, and was later organized by L’Auto, the company that later morphed into today’s Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), the powerful French company that runs the Tour de France.

The course and route has evolved over the years, with the start eventually settling south of Paris. Wind, rain, and sometimes even snow have marked previous editions. The race often comes down to a duel between attackers and sprinters. Richard Virenque won in 2001 after an all-day solo breakaway. Erik Zabel won three times, tying the record held by Gustave Danneels, Paul Maye, and Guido Reybrouck as three-time winners.

Dubbed the “classique des feuilles mortes” (dead leaves classic), Paris-Tours is the complement to Il Lombardia, held the previous weekend in Italy. Only four riders have won both Lombardia and Paris-Tours, two very different kinds of races, in the same season. Philippe Thys did it in 1917, Rik Van Looy in 1959, and Jo de Roo twice, in 1962 and 1963. Philippe Gilbert matched the unique double in 2009.

Ideal fall weather

The peloton should enjoy fine racing weather Sunday, with highs in the upper 60s under fair skies. Cross/tailwinds up to 20kph will be pushing the peloton along for most of the race.

VeloNews’ picks

It’s often difficult to pick form so late in the season. Based on recent results, Bennett, Bouhanni, and Nizzolo look to be on good form. If it comes down to a sprint, we’re picking Bouhanni, while late-race attacks should come from the likes of Van Avermaet and Gallopin.