CHOLET, France (VN) — With back-to-back sprint stages to start off the action at the 2018 Tour de France, the fast finishers find themselves in prime position to wear cycling’s most coveted jersey, if only for a day or two.
Prologue time trial specialists had their chance to take the yellow jersey last year and in 2015, but for 2018, the Tour has opted to open with a mass-start flat stage tailormade for sprinters.
With one of the most competitive sprinting fields in years, the fight for the first yellow will be fierce.
“We’ll try for the win [in stage 1] and to take the jersey, but it’s difficult because there’s so many sprinters,” Quick-Step’s Fernando Gaviria said.
Stage 1 runs 201 kilometers from Noirmoutier-en-l’Île to Fontenay-le-Comte on mostly flat roads along the French coast. A small fourth-category climb 28 kilometers from the finish is not likely to cause the heavier sprinters any trouble. That should set up a bunch kick, giving the purest speedsters a clear opportunity for the maillot jaune.
The list of riders that could find themselves in yellow on Saturday evening is a long one. Gaviria sits near the top, along with fellow youngster Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo). Meanwhile, veterans Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be dangerous as ever.
Cavendish, Kittel, and Sagan have all spent time in yellow already in previous Tour appearances. Kittel has enjoyed two stints in it, winning the opening stages of the 2013 and 2014 Tours. Cavendish achieved a career-long goal of spending a day in yellow in 2016, with Sagan taking over the following stage. The rest of the sprint hopefuls have yet to spend any time in the jersey.
“Everyone will have that in the back of their minds,” Démare said. “I am not going to think about that. I am hoping to win one stage, and that is the priority.”
At the moment, no single name stands out as the clear favorite for the bunch kicks. Kittel, last year’s sprint king, hasn’t had quite the year he was hoping for after transferring from Quick-Step to Katusha. Even coming off a year of five Tour stage wins, he has some work to do to prove he deserves that title again.
“It’s fair to call myself not the top favorite for the sprints here because there are too many other sprinters that have won a lot of races this season,” Kittel contended Thursday. “And there are of course many other strong teams. It’s not only up to us to put ourselves in a position where we’re telling ourselves we have to go and force it now.”
Indeed, the sprints seem wide open for the moment. Cavendish, who could conceivably break the record for career Tour stage victories this year, has been beset by one injury after another for the last 12 months. Greipel and Kristoff have had quiet seasons. Démare and Groenewegen, fast as they are, have yet to prove consistent Tour sprinters, with Groenewegen’s stage 21 victory in 2017 the lone victory between them. Gaviria is making his career debut in the race this weekend.
“It keeps changing,” Démare said of the sprinting hierarchy. “One year it was the Tour of Kristoff, then Greipel, then Kittel. One sprinter always manages to stand out, but we don’t know who it is. This year we’ve all been beating each other. It’s going to make a nice fight at the Tour.”
For most of the sprinters, the primary objective will be the stage victory. An early win sets the tone for the speedsters and the trains. Considering the terrain of the first week, that’s worth something. The fast finishers will have another shot at stage glory — and perhaps the maillot jaune — on Sunday. Stage 2 runs 182.5 kilometers from Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-Sur-Yon. Following a team time trial in stage 3, Tuesday’s stage 4 is yet another mostly flat day with only a single Cat. 4 on tap.
First on the docket, however, is Saturday’s opener. As wide open as the sprint battle seems at the moment, it won’t be long at all before the fast finishers start making statements with their legs.