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Focus on Paris-Tours: Wide-Open Competition On Tap

Last major European race could see plenty of contenders

World champion Philippe Gilbert? Nope. World's fastest sprinter Mark Cavendish? No way. Winningest rider of the year Andre Greipel? Startlist says yes, but his twit feed and other sources say he's done for the season. Flandrien of the year Tom Boonen? Nope. Former winner Oscar Freire, the perfect combination of versatility and sprinting? Nope, he retired officially just today. [Another story...]

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 Paris-Tours startlist. Behold the complete lack of obvious outcomes.

OK, I can think of a couple outcomes that wouldn't seem outlandish by any means. For one, defending winner Greg Van Avermaet is back for more, with no uber-teammates to deny him a shot. Another is a sprinter for the win, there's still a few around. So with that, let's run through a few possible outcomes, in no particular order.

BMC = Big MaChine

If nothing else, it's easy to see where to begin. "Van Avermaet to repeat" is by itself a lazy assumption, but there's plenty to like about the finer details to such a point. First, he's in decent form -- not flying, not enough to bag Lombardia or Piemonte or any other wins since last year's Paris-Tours, but he's been in contention pretty regularly, even while fighting a cold last weekend. Second, Van Avermaet has nearly always done well here, going back to 2006 when he came second (to Huub Duyn) in the Espoirs race. Finally, the Ave de Grammont wasn't exactly his friend, being a power finisher as opposed to a classic sprinter, so the shorter approach to the line coming off the final two climbs is surely better for him. GvA can kick out a fast finish when not facing a pure bunch gallop.

Then there's the support. Sure, GvA can be nullified by having half the peloton sit on his wheel over the final climbs, but that's not the end of the issue. Alessandro Ballan might have the stuff for an attack as the race hits the last two cotes. Not that he's on fire, but on a good day these climbs fit him fine, and he's had some decent appearances here. Ditto for Brent Bookwalter, who would almost certainly surprise folks with a stab at the win. Jannick Eijssen and Manuel Quinziato do the heavy lifting. And if all that fails, Adam Blythe is readying for the sprint, coming off a win at Binche-Tournai-Binche, ahead of John Degenkolb among others.

Truth, none of those are lockdowns. Van Avermaet will definitely be heavily marked. Blythe is young and 232 km is a lot. Bookwalter or Ballan, those would be knockout punches... tough to land. So?

De Bank: Open for Business Time?

I know, I am falling into the same trap. So I'll keep it short. If the shortened Ave de Grammont favors attacking types, then sleep on Lars Boom at your peril. Matti Breschel is the fool's gold on the Rabo startlist, but his back has been bothering him quite a lot. Bauke Mollema is a definite person of interest if the action on the final climbs is hard enough. But the most likely candidate for success is Boom, whose climbing, finishing, classics pedigree and recent form all suggest a good fit.

So yeah, I am predicting a good day for Lars Boom. In a race he's never done before. Have at me, I can take it.

And Then There's the Team That Won All the Classics

Oh, right. Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Let me hasten to point out that one Tom Boonen is not slated to join his mates outside Paris on Sunday morning. So there's that. However, Boonen's absence won't stop OPQS from making quite a bit of noise.

Sylvain Chavanel looks tempting, in theory, but he's never done well in this race, and he was last seen departing Lombardia all too soon. Perhaps a more intriguing character here is Gerald Ciolek, the still-young sorta-sprinter who looked solid in Quebec (9th) when last we saw him. There's also Niki Terpstra, who is Niki Terpstra. Hard to see that he has anything in the tank at the moment, but if he does, it's his kind of race. Special shout-out to Zdenek Stybar, whose tires look awfully skinny these days.

Don't Sleep On...

  • Degenkolb. Harder race means fewer of those annoying newbie sprinters in his way.
  • Giacomo Nizzolo. Seventh in Plouay.
  • Juan Antonio Flecha. Going well these days (2nd in Franco-Belge) and a veteran of the race.
  • Bjorn Leukemans. 7th in Paris-Bourges. Knows what to do here.
  • Marco Marcato. Frisky in Lombardia. Second here last year.
  • Florien Vachon. Winner in Bourges today. But this is a taller order.
Anyone missing?