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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: It’s gonna be a great opening week at the Tour!

The first week of this year's Tour features something for everyone

Recent wins by Gilbert, Cancellara, Farrar and Hushovd boost the expectations

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 19th installment.

There was a time not too long ago when the opening week of the Tour de France was a yawner. Long, flat stages and dominant sprint-team trains saw multiple mass finishes that favored fast men like Mario Cipollini (four consecutive stage wins in 1999), Alessandro Petacchi (four straight in 2003) or Robbie McEwen (three of six in 2006). Their successor Mark Cavendish of HTC-Highroad isn’t going to repeat those feats this year when the 98th Tour loops its first week around the rolling roads of the Vendée, Brittany and Normandy early next month.

2011 Tour de Suisse, stage 7: Cavendish
Cavendish during the Swiss tour. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

The main reasons for this prognosis are threefold:

  • (1) race director Christian Prudhomme has responded to the wishes of French television to make the first week more exciting by inserting three hilltop finishes in the first seven days;
  • (2) an increasing number of teams are riding the Tour with the one goal of winning a stage (and having the riders capable of doing it); and
  • (3) Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, Leopard-Trek’s Fabian Cancellara and Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd, all potential stage winners in the Tour’s first week, are all on rising form.

Not that Cavendish is going to go down without a fight. Much has been made of the HTC sprinter’s failure to win any stages of the Tour of Switzerland this past week. But by simply finishing the nine-day Swiss race, which featured more than 50,000 feet (16,000 meters) of actual climbing, the British sprinter showed that he’s ready to tackle (and finish) another Tour.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through June 19)

1. HTC-Highroad 30 (11 riders)
2. Garmin-Cervélo 18 (11 riders)
3. Rabobank 18 (eight riders)
4. Omega Pharma-Lotto 18 (four riders)
5. Team RadioShack 17 (10 riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 17 (seven riders)
7. Movistar 16 (eight riders)
8. Vacansoleil-DCM 15 (six riders)
9. Sky 14 (seven riders)
10. Saxo Bank-SunGard 14 (four riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 13 (five riders)
Liquigas-Cannondale 13 (five riders)
13. Katusha 7 (three riders)
14. Euskaltel-Euskadi 6 (four riders)
15. Astana 5 (four riders)
16. AG2R-La Mondiale 3 (three riders)
17. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
18. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)

Tour of Switzerland

The Swiss race featured four mountain stages, two time trials and only three potential finishes for the sprinters. Of these three stages, the first at Huttwil went to world champion Hushovd (his first victory of the year), who took a closely fought uphill sprint ahead of all-arounder Peter Sagan of Liquigas, after his Garmin teammates set a hard tempo to burn off the pure sprinters. The second “sprint” stage at Tobel-Tägerschen also had a hilly (and technical) finale that resulted in a surprise win for Vacansoleil’s Borut Bozic. More hills and a tricky finish at Schaffhausen saw Sagan (who’s not riding the Tour) overcome HTC’s Matt Goss.

Goss is getting back the form that earned him the Milan-San Remo win. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Goss finished strongly after getting himself boxed in on the tight left curve 400 meters from the line, but the 25-year-old Australian showed he’s close to the form that won him Milan-San Remo three months ago. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the men he beat to the line in San Remo, Cancellara and Gilbert, each won races over the weekend to emphasize their ambitions at the Tour starting on July 2.

Gilbert took his personal 2011 tally to a season-leading 11 wins at the Ster ZLM Toer with a trademark attack in the last uphill kilometer of Saturday’s rainy stage in the Belgian Ardennes — which also won him the overall title. It was almost a carbon copy of the wins he took this past April at the Flèche Brabançonne and Amstel Gold Race, which also featured uphill finishes, just like the opening stage of the upcoming Tour. And Gilbert’s victory in this year’s Flèche Wallonne classic on the infamously steep Mûr de Huy could presage a similar success on the 2011 Tour’s stage 4 on the almost-as-steep finishing climb at Mûr de Bretagne. And stage 6 into Lisieux has another sharp climb (leading to a flatter finishing straight) that should also suit Gilbert.

As for Cancellara, who won the Tour of Switzerland’s concluding 32.1km time trial on Sunday ahead of Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer, he appears to be on the form that earned him two stage wins and the first week’s yellow jersey at the 2007 Tour. The first of those wins came in the spectacular prologue TT in central London; the other was earned with a last-kilometer attack over cobblestones before he held off the sprinters on the long straightaway to the finish in Compiègne.

Tour de Suisse stage 9 - Fabian Cancellara negotiating a 300-degree hairball turn, just 400 meters away from claiming his second TDS time trial victory. Photo: Gregg Bleakney
Tour de Suisse stage 9 - Fabian Cancellara negotiating a 300-degree hairball turn, just 400 meters away from claiming his second TDS time trial victory. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

Tour’s opening week

There’s no prologue at this year’s Tour, but expect Cancellara to power his Leopard-Trek team to a high placing in the stage 2 team time trial at Les Essarts. If the world and Olympic time trial champ is to win a road stage, his best chance could come on stage 5 along the coast of northern Brittany to Cap Fréhel: The final hour is constantly turning, climbing and dipping through small towns and villages with probable side and tail winds.

Even that stage’s “flatter” finish is not suited to sprinters’ teams closing gaps or setting a high tempo. More likely, the peloton will split in the winds over the bumpy terrain to favor a late solo attack by a Cancellara. If not, the more resilient sprint finishers like Goss, Hushovd and Omega-Lotto’s Andrei Greipel may get their chance.

Obviously, the fastest sprinters are planning a different outcome to the early stages — that’s why Cavendish, his lead-out men Mark Renshaw, Bernie Eisel and Goss, and their likely Tour teammates went to reconnoiter the Tour’s opening stages (including the team time trial) earlier this month. Just as the GC contenders scout the major climbs, so today’s sprinters like to see what’s in store for them on the flat stages.

New this year is each day’s single intermediate sprint, where the top 15 riders will score sprint points, rather than the previous years’ three riders. This will give teams a greater incentive to close down early breakaways and give their sprinters a chance of scoring major points, especially when the actual stage finishes don’t suit them.

These intermediate sprints will be of special importance to green-jersey contenders Cavendish, Petacchi and Farrar (who took a stage of last week’s Ster ZLM Toer, his first win since his close friend Wouter Weylandt died at the Giro d’Italia on May 9). Studying the locations of these midway sprints on stages 1, 3 and 4 was another justification for the early-June scouting trip by Cavendish and his HTC colleagues.

Bearing in mind all the potential strategies and course difficulties of the opening week, expect to see pure sprinters Cavendish, Farrar, Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step) battle for stage wins at Redon (stage 3) and Châteauroux (stage 7); all-terrain sprinters Goss, Hushovd, Greipel and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) to contend at Mont des Alouettes (stage 1) and Cap Fréhel (stage 5); and the best hilltop finishers Gilbert and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) — and perhaps GC contenders Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) and Chris Horner (Team RadioShack) — to shoot for a win at Mûr-de-Bretagne (stage 4) or Lisieux (stage 6).

What is certain is that the opening week of the upcoming Tour — now just over a week away — will not be yawner. The racing should have you on the edge of your seats.