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Tour de France Stage 3 Preview: Classics Party

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Le-tour_medium Today's Tour de France stage was a pretty routine affair. An early breakaway went up the road with two French riders and Morkov, who was chasing the king of the mountains points, and the field set up a desultory chase. Then, inside the final thirty kilometers, the field decided to get busy, caught the break, and prepared for the sprint. Even the outcome of the sprint was predictable. Mark Cavendish won.

Tomorrow's stage 3 looks anything but routine. It sets out from Orchies, a name you will recognize from the spring monument Paris-Roubaix. There are no cobbles on the menu for tomorrow, though, and the race heads toward the coast instead of north to the Roubaix velodrome. It's an almost straight shot west from Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. The profile looks like a seismograph balanced on a three-legged table. Though the stage starts out flat, it's all up and down for the final sixty kilometers. There are six categorized climbs on the profile, and the road pops up at the finish. This is classics rider country — it looks like a Liège-Bastogne-Liège in miniature. As the race approaches the coast and the hilly finale, the course will be increasingly exposed to the wind. Certainly, the sprinters won't be smiling at the start tomorrow.

The first categorized climb comes after 132 kilometers of racing, but watch for the real racing to start on the Côte de Mont Violette, which climbs for a kilometer at an average of 9% and arrives conveniently around 40 kilometers to race. There's around 20 bumpy kilometers to follow. Then, three climbs stack up in rapid succession. The finish of this stage looks like that rug you tripped over this morning or a strip of corduroy fabric — it's wrinkly. The climbs are all under two kilometers in length, but the Côte du Mont Lambert that comes inside ten kilometers to race hits an average of 8.4% and the finishing climb is 7.4%. That's plenty difficult to cause a selection.

Saturday's stage finish in Seraing sent the riders up a 1.5 kilometer climb. That thing averaged 5%. Fabian Cancellara ably defended his yellow jersey in Seraing and dragged Peter Sagan to stage victory in the process. Tomorrow, Cancellara and his RadioShack-Nissan team will have some work to do to keep the race under wraps as it nears the finish. The big Swiss is well able to handle terrain like this stage, but there will be plenty of feisty legs looking to jump away from the field.Podi-tour-4_medium

Who are the favorites for stage victory tomorrow? Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quick-Step almost certainly has this stage circled in his road book. In 2010, Chavanel won a stage much like this one in Spa, Belgium and took over the race lead. Currently, the French rider sits just seven seconds out of the yellow jersey. Chavanel had a go on the finishing climb at Seraing, but Cancellara smothered that attempt and asserted his authority on the race. With more climbing on the run-in to the finish, Chavanel will have more opportunities to try his luck.

As the classics star of his generation, Philippe Gilbert will also like the terrain in tomorrow's race. In 2011, Gilbert scored a very rare triple when he won all three Ardennes classics — Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — all in the same year. During last year's Tour, Gilbert won the opening road stage. Though Saturday's finish in Seraing suited him, he was not in evidence. If he needs any further incentive to go on the attack tomorrow, Gilbert sits just thirteen seconds out of the yellow jersey of race leader.

Riders like Simon Gerrans, Alejandro Valverde, Pierrick Fédrigo, and Thomas Voeckler are also worth watching out for on a finish like this one. And, of course, wunderkind Peter Sagan would well repeat Saturday's victory. He can win from a sprint, of course, but Sagan also has the legs to join a late escape. Really, there is no terrain outside the high mountains where he does not thrive.

The tricky terrain of tomorrow's stage means that the general classification riders will have to stay alert. Riders such as Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, Ryder Hesjedal, they will need to stay at the front, watch out for crashes, and avoid being caught out by a cheeky escape from one of their rivals. It's bike race time for everyone at the Tour tomorrow. Unlike today, where the general classification riders had a mostly easy day, tomorrow they will have to ride at the front and watch out for dangerous escapades.

Clip and Save! Here is the current general classification.