Depending on how you consume your cycling, you might have been waiting for Saturday to roll around since Alexander Kristoff’s front tyre whipped over the finishing tape on the 29th July last year. Maybe you stuck around for a few minutes to watch Damien Gaudin’s back tyre officially bring a close to the Tour of 2018. Maybe you’ve only been waiting since the Giro, in which case it is only a month and three days since Richard Carapaz wound up his time trial and ended the race with Ecuador in raptures. Hell, maybe you’ve only been waiting since the national champs finished last weekend.
However long you’ve waited, and however excited you’ve got, the Tour starts tomorrow. In Brussels which, fact fans, is in Belgium. Belgium is known for not being France, and also for being rather keen on bicycle races. You can expect huge crowds on the road for the start and finish of this stage, and throughout. Between geography and chronology, in other words, there is a lot of pent up excitement for the first stage of the biggest race of all. That’s just as well, because the route promises relatively little excitement.
The peloton are heading into cycling’s heartland in Flanders and over the Bosberg, and areeven taking a passage of the familiar Muur. Because this is the Tour, it is now oddly renamed the Mur de Grammont (nope, can’t cope with that). Unfortunately, it is also far too far from home for anything to matter. Coming through Geraardsbergen and not creating chaos seems a shame, but understandable in the context of a three-week race, and the sprinters’ teams have 150km or thereabouts of flattish road to corral the whole field. We’ll see enough to pay homage to Eddy Merckx, and to a storied region in the sport, but not enough to put us off a sprint.
The forecasters are expecting tomorrow to be mighty warm, with light winds tomorrow and little chance of rain, and with all the trains fired up, we should expect a regulation break/chase/sprint day. The finish is in the park of the Royal Palace, which means a wide road and sweeping bend, nothing too technical. There’s an uphill drag but not enough to stop a well-timed sprint.
Well, there are really two questions here. One is whether you think this will be a pure sprinters’ day or a hardman-sprinter’s day. If the latter, your shortlist is, approximately, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Alexander Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, Matteo Trentin and Edvald Boassen Hagen. If you fancy the former it is Dylan Groenewgen, Elia Viviani, as well as the swiftest among all those hardman sprinters I just mentioned, with Ewan particularly fancying his chances of mixing it up. Some other names to keep in mind for the race’s sprints are Christophe Laporte, Ivan Garcia, Giacomo Nizzolo, Daryl Impey and if things get really challenging, Julian Alaphilippe.
I think that this stage will be simple enough that Groany and Viv will be able to stay involved. Sagan is always better in this race than all the year’s other sprints and I think he’ll be close enough to scare a few riders. Ewan, too, should enjoy a drag finish. However, I’ve been consistent in my Jumbo-Visma belief all year and I’m not abandoning it now. Dylan Groenewgen to win ahead of Sagan and Ewan.
Yellow will go to the stage winner, and green will too. Barring disaster, nothing that happens today will matter to the final destination of the yellow jersey. Disaster must be avoided for all the GC guys, however, for whom shifting road directions and a congested peloton on the Muur present genuine hazards. If Sagan is to regain green this is the sort of stage in which he’ll need to minimise losses to the likes of Groany and Viv, whilst distancing Bling and van Aert. He should do so.
The polka jersey is very much up for grabs and will go to whoever makes it into the break. The smart money says it’ll be a Belgian team or a Belgian rider, so I’ll avoid the obvious answers of Guillaume Martin and Thomas de Gendt and plump instead for Dries Devenyns. I have absolutely no idea who’ll be wearing white, so let’s give it to Ivan Garcia on finishing position. That’s the jersey competition that’ll take the longest to heat up.