Tour de France
Marcel Kittel is looking for his sixth stage win...

Tour stage 16: Sprint showdown on tap

Marcel Kittel has won five stages at this Tour de France and is expected to contend for No. 6 Wednesday in Romans-sur-Isere.

LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AFP) — Le Puy-en-Velay is the starting point of the “Via Podiensis” pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but on Tuesday it saw off the Tour de France peloton on the road to yellow jersey glory.

On paper, the 165-kilometer stage 16 to Romans-sur-Isere should be one for sprint king Marcel Kittel as he seeks his sixth victory in the race.

But for the overall contenders, including race leader Chris Froome, there are potential perils. With less than 30 seconds separating the top four and another three riders within a further 90 seconds, this is the tightest Tour in years.

Two daunting Alpine mountain stages loom starting Wednesday. For Ireland’s Dan Martin, the biggest dangers lurk elsewhere on this year’s enthralling Grand Boucle.

“Anything can happen in the Tour. If you have a bad day, especially with the potential for crosswinds [on Tuesday] and on Friday, the Tour could be decided on the flat, similar to Rodez [stage 14] rather than in the mountains where everybody expected it to be decided,” said the 30-year-old Quick-Step Floors rider, who is 1:12 back in fifth.

“You have to concentrate until the finish and so far I’m really proud of the way I’ve ridden in terms of the focus and concentration I’ve maintained since the start.”

With the top riders largely neutralizing each other on the toughest climbs, it has been elsewhere that they have had to look to try to make small gains.

Italian Fabio Aru, who held the yellow jersey for two days last week before relinquishing it back to Froome when he was caught out by the lightning-fast run-in to Rodez on Saturday, believes the contenders are going to have to get creative.

“In my opinion, you have to be inventive on the bike. You can come up with all the possible tactics but it’s in the race that you find out if you’ve got the legs or not,” said the Astana leader, who is 18 seconds behind Froome.

Tuesday promises to be a fast start out of the beautiful, historic and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Le Puy en Velay, known for its Notre Dame de l’Annonciation Cathedral, Corneille rock, and Notre Dame de France statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

The lumpy profile should encourage a breakaway to form. The sprinters’ teams, however, will want to control the break to set up their riders for an expected sprint finish.