This year’s mountainous Tour de France will not be kind to the race’s sprinters.
With a tough parcours and a diminished sprinter field, two of the fastest men in the bunch – Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) – are bracing beneath the weight of expectations.
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Ewan, returning to the race after storming through his debut Tour last year with three stage wins, including the so-called “sprinter’s world championships” on the Champs-Élysées, is feeling the weight of expectation to repeat the feat for a Lotto-Soudal team built around him.
“I feel more pressure than last year at the start of my first Tour de France,” Ewan said at a pre-race press conference Thursday. “I’ve stepped up again another level and I’m ready to take up the challenge on Saturday.”
This year’s Tour de France is more mountainous than ever before, with Ewan believing there are “about six opportunities” for a sprint finish. With teams stacking their rosters heavy with GC riders in recognition of the climb-heavy course and in fear of the rescheduled season shuttering at any moment, the sprint field is sparse.
This year’s race is without top-tier fastmen Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), and a red-hot Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). Alongside Ewan, Elia Viviani (Cofidis) and Bennett are the only all-out pure sprinters brave enough to take on the battery of climbs laid out by ASO’s route planner Thierry Gouvenou.
“Some sprinters are missing but there are still riders like Elia Viviani, Sam Bennett, and André Greipel and as always, it’ll be hard to win,” Ewan said. “Because of my three wins last year, there are expectations based on that, so I feel more pressure.”
Like Ewan, Bennett is bracing in advance of the Tour de France pressure cooker. The Irishman doesn’t have the weight of three prior-year victories atop his shoulders, but a stack of expectations from his new Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates.
The 29-year-old may have a handful of victories at both the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia to his name, but he’s yet to take a Tour stage. Having been omitted from his previous Bora-Hansgrohe team’s Tour line ups as they rallied around Peter Sagan, 2020 is Bennett’s first Tour start since 2016, and has the backing of a brawny “wolfpack” behind him.
“For some reason here, it really feels like my whole career has been a build-up to this moment and this opportunity, and I feel quite a bit of pressure in that sense,” Bennett said. “It would mean a lot to get a stage win here. It would settle me as a rider and make me a lot more confident.”
“I think you just have to accept there is pressure, that’s part of the moment. I suppose when you have that pressure it means that it really means something to you, so you just have to embrace it.”
The first opportunity to settle the nerves and strike an early blow in the sprinter showdown comes Saturday on the race’s opening stage around Nice. However, it will prove far from straightforward for the race’s heavyweights, with bold breakaway riders also in with an opportunity on the lumpy, looping course through the foothills of the Alps.
“It’s not going to be a simple sprint”, Ewan said. “But the good thing for us sprinters is that there are a lot of time to rejoin the peloton if we are stuck in the last rise.”
The hilly parcours and tight, twisting roads through Nice will make the Tour’s first sprint prize and the opportunity to take the race-leaders yellow jersey all the more cherished for whoever grabs it.
The pressure is on the likes of Ewan and Bennett to make every opportunity count, and although Saturday’s stage may not see a GC battle, expect the race to explode into life and set this year’s unprecedented Tour de France into motion.