The Tour de France hits home soil after its Danish sojourn with a stage carrying a sting in its tail.
The 171.5km fourth stage starts in Dunkirk and finishes in Calais. Although both are pan-flat coastal cities, the numerous short, punchy hills in between may take the sting out of a few sprinters’ legs.
They will be keen to keep it together for what could be the last big bunch kick for some time, given the eleven cobblestone sectors that feature on stage 5 and hillier finishes in the subsequent days.
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Six Category 4 climbs on the menu
Heading south, the first categorized ascent of the day in Cassel will be well-known to followers of the Four Days of Dunkirk race, where it makes a regular appearance.
After that, the race goes west, with five more short, sharp Category 4 climbs on the route. Magnus Cort will have a fight on his hand to keep his mountains jersey.
It’s a deceptively tough day through northern France, with close to 2,000 meters of climbing and several uncategorized risers on small roads too. Heading through the Pas de Calais region, not far from Cofidis team headquarters, one of the men in white-and-red may well get up the road.
However, there is enough freshness and desire among the fast men and their teams that chances of a breakaway sticking are low.
Jewel of the Opal coast
The focal point of the race is the Côte du Cap Blanc-Nez. The striking cliff (which translates as “Cape White Nose”) and tourist icon of the Opal Coast is topped 11 kilometers from the finish. It averages 7.5 percent and is 900 meters in length. It favors a move from an explosive puncheur or two, but it’ll take a lot of strength to stave off a chasing bunch on the fast, straight run-in.
After crashes in the finales of both Danish road stages, a bunch with a fair few sore riders will be hoping that everyone stays sunny side up into Calais, especially with the cobbles on the horizon. There is a left turn 500 meters from the finish, so positioning will prove crucial if it comes down to a bunch gallop.
While Calais is a popular stopping point for British tourists, this is the first time in Tour de France history that the city will host a stage finish.
If the wind blows
The other potential danger is splits in the peloton, as the wind is set to be blowing 13kph from the northwest. That’s the right direction for echelons when the race hits the coastal headlands and heads east for the final 25 kilometers.
However, it will likely need to be blowing a little harder to break things up, even under the impetus of well-organized teams. Nerves will nevertheless be high.
It looks set to be a sunny day with some cloud cover. Temperatures will be around 20C.
Van Aert and the elusive victory
After a third consecutive second place in a row, Wout van Aert has extended his lead in the general classification to seven seconds over stage one winner Yves Lampaert. It’s doubtful that he’ll lose the maillot jaune, given fellow sprinters’ interests.
“This was one I had in my hands. It’s the first big disappointment,” he said after his near-miss on stage 3. He will be looking to end his streak of runner-up placings and cross the line triumphant in Calais.