Tour de France
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Rather than a procession, the Champs-Élysées is the biggest prize for the Tour’s sprinters

The final sprint battle in Paris is as much a test of positioning through the vital final chicane and a rider's ability to endure 20 grueling stages as it is of their top top-end speed.

VAL THORENS (VN) – It is often said the last stage of the Tour de France is a procession … just don’t tell the sprinters that.

For them, the final stage of the world’s biggest bike race into the French capital of Paris is one of the most prestigious races to win. It finishes on one of the most well-known and beautiful boulevards in the world, the Champs-Élysées. It is also one of the most televised races they will ever compete in, and for the winner comes all the plaudits they deserve as they sign off on another Tour with arms aloft in victory. The only other victory salute of most importance is that of the overall Tour winner who usually finishes within the peloton.

It is also not as easy as some may think because of its perception as an end-of-Tour procession. This notion was created due to the images of early festivities that recognize the winners in waiting of the yellow, green, polka dot and white jerseys.

The stage is a fast and furious race right to the end, as this year’s 21st and final leg from Rambouillet to Paris will show when it hits the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées after 73.5 kilometers for eight 6.5km circuits, including the leg-sapping rise up the Champs-Élysées up to and around the Arc du Triomphe. It is also one of the more challenging sprints to get right because of the chicanes leading into the final straight home.

“Once you hit the Champs-Élysées it is on … it is really hard,” 12 times Tour stage winner, Australian Robbie McEwen told VeloNews. “It’s as fast and intense as any other finish, probably more so because there is this level of desperation … guys who are hanging in for this last chance, and because of the set-up of the course, that last corner with 350m to go, if you’re not in the right position you have absolutely no hope.”

McEwen, who won the green jersey in 2002, 2004 and 2006, twice won on the ‘Champs’ – in 1996 for his first win and in 2002. But that maiden victory in his third of 12 Tours meant so much. “It took me three Tours to get it,” he said. “I felt as much a massive sense of relief as excitement, and for being able to show [up] anybody who had any doubts about me.”

Sunday’s stage also has all the makings for an absolute thrilling bunch sprint finish. There is a rich depth of in-form sprinting talent still in the three-week race after Saturday’s final mountain stage in the Alps, the shortened 59km stage 20 from Albertville to the summit at Val Thorens.

Even better, the likes of Australians Caleb Ewan (Lotto- Soudal) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Italians Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), German Andre Greipel (Arkea-Samsic), Norwegian Alexander Kristoff  (UAE-Team Emirates), and Slovakian Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) – who has an unassailable lead on the green points jersey – will charge into the final dash of this Tour with far greater reserves and zest than they would have had were it not for Friday’s 19th stage and Saturday’s stage 20 being shortened as they were due to Mother Nature’s wrath.

And for those among them without a stage win yet in this Tour, such as Kristoff, Matthews, and Colbrelli, there is even added motivation to lift in this last gasp finish to the line.

Kristoff, whose best result in this Tour so far was a second on stage 11, is not placing too much pressure on himself. After finishing sixth on the final stage in 2013, second in 2014, third in 2015 and 2016, and then fifth in 2017, he won in Paris last year, despite not having won any stages earlier.

Alexander Kristoff relished his 2018 win in Paris surrounded by Norwegian media. Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

Kristoff admitted he was tired after the first day of Alps, but did not delve into who might be stronger or not among the sprinters. “I will see who is who made it through [to Paris],” he told VeloNews. “We’ll see who is the best on Sunday.”

Although, earlier in the Tour, Kristof did tell VeloNews that after last year’s final stage victory, he knows that he can finish the Tour feeling stronger than his peers; or rather, that they weaken at a greater rate. “I know I can perform, but I also know I’m usually not as fast as Viviani or Groenewegen,” Kristoff said after stage 6. “But then, then they get more tired and our differences get less and less. Maybe in the last sprint stages, I am faster than them? We’ll stay motivated on to Paris as long as I’m here. We have one more chance.”

Matthews, the green jersey winner in 2017, is hungry to make amends for a Tour in which he had prepared specifically to help Tom Dumoulin vie for the overall victory. But the Dutchman withdrew before from their team before the start due to his knee injury in the Giro d’Italia. Matthews’ best results in his fifth Tour, were a second on stage 3, fourth on stage 10 and sixth on stage 16. In the Paris stage of previous Tours, he placed ninth in 2015, fifth in 2016 when he won an earlier stage, and 11th in 2017 when he won two stages before that finale. He did not finish last year’s Tour due to illness before stage 5.

“The way the Tour is going so far, it hasn’t been great,” Matthews told VeloNews. “This is the last chance. But another opportunity creates another chance. So, I’m just trying to get [to Paris] as good as I can and see what legs I’ve left.”

Asked what he learned from his previous Paris finishes, he said: “Being closer up front. It’s all about timing, and coming into that corner – that chicane – with less than a kilometer to go. It’s always hectic, even if you’re already position … guys try and swamp from the side and do a last-minute dash.

“It’s all about timing and making sure you have a good wheel; or a good leadout guy in front of you who can really bring you in at the right time. But at the end of a three-week race, sprinting on cobbles is totally different to any other sprint.”

Michael Matthews hopes his climbing abilities means he will arrive in Paris in better condition than his sprint rivals. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

While stages 19 and 20 in the Alps were shortened, Matthews is hoping his strong climbing prowess compared to the other sprinters will have helped him going into Sunday’s finale with greater reserves and strength than the other sprinters. All the sprinters still spent forces in the mountains, through the Pyrénees and up until the Col d’Iseran on Friday and up to the 33.4km climb to Val Thorens on Saturday.

“That’s what has and will help me,” he said. “But it seems like everyone has got through the time cuts quite easily.”

Ewan, who struggled in the Pyrenees and into the Alps, was in great spirits after Friday’s stage was reduced in length. He twice posted Tweets that jokingly reflected his feeling. But now that Ewan is Paris-bound, the winner of stages 11 and 16 in his Tour debut will be a favourite for Sunday’s big finish.

His team, which has won three stages with Belgian Thomas De Gendt’s stage 8 victory added to Ewan’s two, will be ready to set the Australian up as best as they can for a third victory.

Ewan’s Belgian teammate, Jens Keukelaire, says the Belgian team is committed to finishing their Tour with a Ewan win.

After the Alps, Keukelaire said Lotto-Soudal’s focus was on: “Getting to Paris … helping Caleb as much as possible to get a good result … to win [with Ewan] on the Champs Élysées.”

Keukelaire knows that the sprint into Paris is a hard one to get right. “I’ve never won on the Champs Élysées,” he said.“But I think the last corner, or the last chicane, is crucial if you are to get into good position there. Okay, you need to have the legs to sprint. But I think there’s enough adrenaline to give you good legs. So just getting through that chicane with the first six riders, then you can do a good sprint.”

The Tour has treated Lotto-Soudal well. They already have three stage wins, and their Belgian rider Tim Wellens led the King of the Mountains classification from stage three to 18 when Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) took it.

“When you come here, you always have an objective to win one stage,” said Keukelaire. “We were already happy with the first one by De Gendt, more happy with the second one and then the third one [both by Ewan]. It can’t be better.”

Well, it will get better for Lotto-Soudal if Ewan wins in Paris, which he may well do considering his top-end speed compared to the other sprinters as the Tour has continued.

Keukelaire has seen a noticeable difference between the Ewan of today and the Ewan who was previously his teammate on the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team which they both left after the 2018 season to ride for Lotto-Soudal.

“As a rider, he’s a little bit more mature,” Keukelaire said. “From two, three years ago, he’s just become a stronger rider. You can see it in the sprints, he goes to the sprints with more confidence. I think he’s not afraid to go early. And I think he’s just a little bit more of a complete sprinter.”

Caleb Ewan has two stage wins so far in this Tour and is a favorite for stage 21. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

However, for all the talk of a sprint finish in Paris, there are occasional exceptions to the rule. In modern Tour history when teams have greater control on the race, breakaways are usually made to give teams and sponsors last publicity before the race comes to its inevitable end. Since 1977, only six times has the stage been won from breakaways. They were by Frenchman Alain Meslet in 1977, Dutchman Gerri Knetemann in 1978, Frenchmen Bernard Hinault in 1979, American Jeff Pierce in 1987, Frenchman Eddy Seigneur in 1994, and Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov in 2005.

Former Canadian professional Steve Bauer recalls what it is like to almost pull it off. When riding for the French Toshiba-Look-La Vie Claire team, he was second on the Champs-Elysées in 1987, one second behind Pierce who was riding for the American 7-Eleven-Hoonved team. Behind them were the strung-out remnants of the break they were in, while at 17 seconds came the peloton led by Dutchman Jean-Paul Van Poppel.

“Typically, the sprinter teams will control and keep it really fast,” said Bauer. “But if you want to do something and take the front, because it’s so fast, you’ve got to be really good.”

Bauer said once Pierce attacked, he expected one of the two PDM riders in their break – Dutchmen Peter Stevenhaagen and Adri Van der Poel – to chase him when got a 10 second lead.

“But they didn’t and then with one kilometer to go, I just had to say, ‘Okay, I ‘gotta’ go for it … if I want to win the race, I’ve just got to bury myself.’ I got away, but then as I came around the corner, the lactic acid was like a brick wall. Pierce, he was right there. But the legs weren’t moving anymore.”

Bauer is looking forward to Sunday’s finish in Paris. “You can’t be too far back and you can’t be too far in front [leading into the sprint … probably like third or fourth wheel,” he said of the ideal position. “It should be an interesting sprint,”

“There’s a lot of favorites this year actually. All the sprints have been really close. Even then Kristoff has won there. So, he knows how to win there. You might see him come from outside and take them all. It should be exciting.”