By Andrew Hood
It might be called the “sprinters’ classics,” but Paris-Tours is a race where opportunists can have their way.
The French fall classic has often tipped in favor of attackers who’ve foiled the best-laid plans of the sprinters, with such riders as Frédéric Guesdon (2006) and Erik Dekker (2004) winning thanks to strong late-race tactics.
With the 102nd edition of Paris-Tours on tap Sunday, there will be plenty of protagonists looking to pad their palamares in what’s the last major race of the season for sprinters. And, as in the case of three-time winner Erik Zabel, the last race of his career.
The big favorites will be Tom Boonen, with an on-form Allan Davis at QuickStep, with Spanish fast-man Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) always men to watch down the Avenue du Grammont.
Boonen is in good form, coming off a stage-win at Franco-Belge, but he brushed off a fall in the final stage and should be hungry to end his season on a positive note.
Tyler Farrar, who held the race leader’s jersey at Franco-Belge last week, will be looking to capitalize on his strong late-season strength for Garmin-Chipotle.
Recently crowned world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) will lead the opportunists, with other wily options such as Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Nick Nuyens (Cofidis).
German sprinter Gerald Ciolek is out with a late sickness, leaving Paris-Bourges winner Bernard Eisel to lead the prolific Team Columbia squad. The team will try to put riders into breakaways, a tactic that worked well for Eisel earlier this week.
“That tactic worked out for us well on Thursday, when Bernhard [Eisel] won Paris-Bourges, so I don’t see why it can’t work on Sunday, too,” said Columbia sports director Tristan Hoffman. “On top of that, we won’t have any of our top fastmen there. So it makes sense for us to try and get somebody into one of those early moves, rather than gamble it all on a bunch sprint.”
Matti Breschel (CSC-Saxo Bank), fresh off a stage-win in the Vuelta a España and bronze in Varese worlds, and Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto), stage-winner and points winner at the Vuelta, will be among the young guns trying to elbow their way past the veterans.
Another rider looking to unbalance the sprinters will be Filippo Pozzato, winding down his run at Liquigas before switching to Katusha for 2009. Liquigas will also bring Daniele Bennati and Francisco Chicchi.
“For Sunday I am hoping for good weather and the arrival of a close group. There will be many adversaries, riders like Boonen, Freire and McEwen are all dangerous,” Pozzato said. “I am in good form and I want to be a protagonist.”
There will be 23 teams at the start in Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines, but the team of defending champion Alessandro Petacchi, LRP Brakes, won’t be. The Italian team was a last-hour exclusion once it was revealed it hadn’t signed on to the biological passport program, opening the door for Collstop.
The 252km route pushes south across the wide-open wheat fields where crosswinds can be a major factor. With the biggest climb at 250 meters, concludes on the straight-ahead three-kilometer Avenue du Grammont in Tours.