The chances for bunch sprinters come few and far between in this year's Dauphiné, and those opportunities aren't easy ones either. Today's stage, one "for the sprinters," included two Category 2 climbs. The next stage with a possibility - not guarantee! - of a sprint comes on Friday's stage that serves up a series of Category 4 climbs and more unclassified lumps in the final 25 kilometers. So perhaps it is no surprise that the big name sprinters have taken a pass on this year's edition of the race and are instead headed to the Tour de Suisse in a week.
What this means for us fans is a few chances to watch some up and coming sprinters mix it up with some of the heartier fast men like Gianni Meersman, Arnaud Demare, and Jens Keukleire. And oh, did things get interesting today. With a large break of eight riders still 30 seconds up the road coming into the final 10 kilometers, it seemed touch and go for a sprint, but even with good cooperation the break would feel the hot breath of the peloton on its collective necks a scant few kilometers later. After a short lived, last ditch attack from the break, the situation was gruppo compatto at six kilometers to go. A brief sojourn by Lieuwe Westra off the front was brought back at 2.5 kilometers to go, and from there it was game on as leadout trains jostled for position in the increasingly techincal run towards the finish.
The scrum put Arnaud Demare outside the top ten with 500 meters to go, ending his shot at victory, and then a messy sprint opened up. Giant-Shimano's Nikias Arndt jumped clear 200m from the line, sprinted in the saddle, and opened up a large gap that Kris Boeckmans of Lotto-Belisol almost closed down at the line. Though it appeared a photo finish, the contrasting disappointment and joy on Boeckmans' and Arndt's faces was evidence of who hit the finish mere centimeters before the other.
If you haven't heard of Arndt before, you're in good company. The second year pro and occasional track racer had a low profile in his first season last year. He raced anonymously through the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman before embarking on a tour of the Low Country races in the early spring. He nabbed a second and third on consecutive stages of the Tour of Turkey last year as the cycling world's attention was turned towards the Ardennes classics. After going round France in last year's Dauphiné, he went to the Arctic Tour of Norway. Here, he won the third stage with Kenny van Hummel and Thor Hushovd the biggest names left in his wake. The next day, he finished third, putting him into third overall for the four-day race.
Perhaps the best sign Arndt could progress in his second season came in September. Arndt finished his first grand tour - a feat in itself, especially for a neo pro. But more than that, Arndt finished third in the last stage of the race just behind Michael Matthews and Tyler Farrar. Though his chances to shine more this year may be limited by the bevy of fast men at Giant-Shimano, Arndt is in a position to learn much from compatriots John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel.