I’m going to make a few bold predictions here. In three weeks time when the Tour de France rolls onto the Champs-Élysées, Chris Froome will be in yellow, Peter Sagan in green and Rafal Majka in polka-dots. Something tells me I wouldn’t get great odds on such a sweep. Majka is no sure bet for the mountains classification, and nor is Froome for yellow, but Sagan seems almost a cert for the points competition.
Of the 21 stages on this Tour, there are about 11 that Sagan could win. He won’t do that, of course but he’ll win some and he’ll finish second in others. I wouldn’t surprised if he finished in the top 10 of half the stages. He’ll still finish an hour or two down on general classification, but he’ll make his mark like few others. Indeed he could well find himself in yellow within the first week if he puts in a solid prologue on Saturday.
The first yellow jersey of this Tour could go the way of Tony Martin, which would be nice for the Germans given they’re hosting the start. Martin isn’t what he once was against the clock, but he’ll have been targeting this one and there’s no Tom Dumoulin or Rohan Dennis to get in the way. The main contenders for yellow in Paris won’t lose too much time in the prologue but the days ahead will test them. There’s the potential for cross-winds and we’ve seen what damage those can do to someones Tour aspirations down the years.
Stage two to Liège should belong to the sprinters, unless Chris Froome has it in his mind to do a Miguel Indurain. In 1995, on the road to Liège, the great Spaniard went on a flier with Johan Bruyneel, catching all his rivals unaware and snatching 50 seconds. It put him into the yellow jersey and the following day he won the time trial and put down the foundations for a 5th Tour win. Of course the time-trial comes the day before they ride into Liège this year, and is much shorter. It’s unlikely we’ll see shades of ’95 in ’17.
Stage three though could provide an opportunity for gaps. There’s a short-sharp uphill finish that may allow a change of leader overall. This is where Sagan could mount his bid for a few days in yellow. On such a rolling stage it is also where some pretender will look to grab the mountains jersey for a few days.
Stage four will be another sprinters day. Cavendish to reduce the gap to Merckx in all-time stage wins to three? Cavendish is short of form after an early season illness, but has turned up anyway. Part out of sponsor obligation but part out of the belief that he can find form in the race and grab a stage win or two. Only the Tour has the sway to bring Cavendish out to race such a big event this soon in his comeback. Any wins might come towards the back end of the Tour, if he survives the mountains, but sprints in the Tour are as unpredictable as they come. So many sprinters target wins here and come with their ‘A’ game. As such there can and will be chaos in the field. All Cavendish needs to do is feature at the front and his experience, if not his form, might see him to an early win.
Stage five and things come alive early. It’s the first major summit finish, at Le Plance des Belles Filles. You may remember that name as the place Froome got his first stage win in 2012. Also where Nibali won in 2014 and grabbed back yellow for good on a day in which Alberto Contador crashed out. Froome wasn’t there that day, he himself had crashed out a few days before. I can only hope we don’t hit the climb this year with similar casualties. I want this race won on the road and not by riders having to abandon. But no doubt the opening week of the Tour is one of extreme nervousness. Everyone wants to be near the front in case of a crash or cross-winds. And crashes and cross-winds there will be. By the time this stage is over we’ll have a fair idea of who is in form early and who has work to do. The list of riders still in contention could be down to half a dozen, if not fewer. It will be a hard climb for some coming so early, but for many it will be a relief. It would give the standings a good sorting out and allow the race to settle down in the days ahead.
The next two stages should belong to the sprinters. At some point an early break might survive, but those are few and far between these days. The main reason is race radios. Team managers can inform those leading the chase in the peloton what kind of speed they need to maintain to bring back those desperadoes up the road. The second reason is a byproduct of the first. Sprint stages have become more important than ever. The sprinters, their teams and sponsors cannot pass up the chance of a stage victory.
From here we hit the northern Alps and the serious climbing begins. But climbing stages seems to come in pairs, separated then by flat stages for the sprinters. The hope for those entering the daily early break now, is that after a hard day in the mountains the sprint teams might sit up. If a stage is rolling enough a huge group will go up the road and stay away. Here someone will make their career by grabbing a stage victory. That is if Sagan doesn’t infiltrate these kind breaks on rolling stages. Looking to snatch up points from his sprint rivals who cannot survive such hills, it’s on these roads he’ll win the green jersey.
But for all the mountain stages, we will only see one summit finish before stage 18. That comes on stage 12 and even it isn’t a savage finish. There will be gaps but what this Tour is going to do is force those who lose time in the first week, to take risks elsewhere. They cannot wait for stage 12 and then stage 18. They will have to get creative. To attack early, to try split the pack, to isolate rivals, to attack on the descents into a stage finish. The same old tactic of waiting to the final 3km on a summit finish to win and lose the Tour may not work in 2017. It could lead to a drab old Tour, but likewise it could lead to some real unpredictable racing.
The Tour organisation have taken a risk with this route and I salute them for it. I only hope the riders live up to their end of the bargain. And so they should. There are a lot of stages that lend themselves to creative racing and those who take their chances will receive their rewards in Paris.
And speaking of stage 18. No doubt that it is the queen stage. A summit finish on the Izoard. The last chance for a climber to make his mark and win a stage. Also the last chance for a climber in contention to extend his lead ahead of the time-trial, or to take back time lost. Whatever time a rider has gained or lost up to now could be up for grabs today. It’s very inadvisable for anyone to wait to make their move today, but if time-gaps are still tight, as we hope they are, then this stage will be fascinating.
A break of domestiques, free of their duties, will survive on stage 19 before the penultimate stage time-trial in Marseilles. By now we will have reached the south coast of France and so much unknown as I write this now will have become known then. The green jersey and mountains classification will be over. The only men left capable of winning a stage of this Tour will be men good against the clock, and the sprinters. That said, time-trials this late in grand tours can be funny old things. Tired bodies litter the peloton now. This sudden required effort over 22km could throw up a surprise, either in stage winner or in the performance of GC men. And let’s not forget there is a short-sharp little climb in the middle of it. What kind of spanner that throws into the works will be fascinating to see. We can only hope the yellow jersey is still on the line.
And then Paris. The only unknown by then will be which sprinter will win the unofficial sprinters world championship. Much like the time-trial the day before, tired legs could upset the predictability of the outcome. If he’s still racing by then, with renewed form, I can see Cavendish regaining his King of Paris crown. Then again, Sagan is due here.
So it all lies in wait, and it might be best not to return to this preview once it has finished. The likelihood is that the way this Tour unfolds is far removed from what I have suggested. Still, I cannot help myself and I end this piece more excited for tomorrow than I did when I sat down to write it.
It’s Tour de France eve and the show begins in less than twenty-four hours now.