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Tour Stage Three Preview: A Sparkling Finish

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Binche - Epernay, 215km

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Today, class, we’re going to start with a little cod-philosophy. When does the Tour start? The first ridiculous news story (usually involving drugs?). The presentation? The depart fictif on stage one? The moment someone pulls on yellow? The first crash? The first hors-categorie climb? Many options. Perhaps you are a true nationalist, in which case you think the race starts as soon as it enters France. If so, full marks for etymological logic but none for recognising the passage of time and the evolution of grand tours.

I don’t agree with the logic that it is only the Tour when it happens in France, but this year, there’s something to be said for the race getting interesting just as it crosses the border on stage three. I know the TTT is important, and I realise that the race starts as soon as the riders get going – as Fuglsang’s gory eyebrow and inflated knee can testify. Still, what I’m looking for is exciting racing, with the whole peloton together on challenging roads. Monday’s stage three is a bruiser at 215km, entering France at halfway or thereabouts, and getting hilly for the last 45km or so into Epernay. France is where my true Tour begins this year.

Quite apart from giving us good roads and hopefully thrilling cycling, this is champagne country and home to my favourite fizz. One of the few things I have in common with Winston Churchill is a deep love of Pol Roger. He, the old dog, believed in drinking it in his bath to start the day, and got through so much that the house made him special one-pint bottles as the ideal breakfast drink. Alas, neither my wallet nor my liver (nor, indeed, my driving license) can cope with such giddy excess, but it was the tipple I enjoyed immediately after I got married, and on many other happy occasions. Get it down you. Meanwhile, for more measured and informed wine advice, we welcome back our old friend Amy.

So... very... thirsty

Amy BC’s wine of the day

Champagne! How happy was I when the route map was announced and I had an excuse to drink Champagne for several stages and not just the final one? To start something geeky and fun. Georges Laval Champagne Brut Nature 1er Cru NV from Copake Wine Works. What, you ask is brut nature? Eric Asimov says:” Most fascinating of all has been the rise of low-dosage Champagnes, those made with less than six grams of residual sugar. These can be labeled extra brut, and if the dosage is three grams or less, they can also be labeled “brut nature,” “brut zéro” or “non-dosé.”

Laval is a tiny 2.5 hectare estate that has been farmed organically since the 1970s. Their Champagnes are hard to find and expensive. So why am I recommending them? Because they are also great. But if you can’t find them, there are a lot of other great grower (produced by the same estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown) Champagnes out there. Or, you know, find whatever bottle of bubbly you can and drown your Cav related sorrows along with me.

What happens, and who wins?

Now that we’ve all got a thirst on, let’s turn to the racing. There’s an interesting question as to the composition and survival of the break, as most of the stage is pretty flat with the hilly stuff backloaded. I’d guess the break will take the major points at the sprintermediate and are probably still clear over the first hill or two. The trio of short, sharp category three cotes (Hautvillers, Champillon and Mutigny) as well as the unclassified Mont Bernon and the uphill finish make this a genuinely tricky conclusion and I can’t see a tired break holding off the rampaging peloton.

There’ll likely be moves from punchy riders looking to avoid a reduced bunch gallop to the line and there are plenty of launching pads for such moves. The likes of Tim Wellens will need to be watched closely. A well-timed attack could easily put the right man into polka dots, as well as giving a chance of a stage win – and who knows, maybe yellow – so even with the deflated expectations that the Tour brings, it is hard to see this being a quiet day. Astana have the sort of riders who can make a difference on this stage if they’re granted freedom (Lutsenko would lick his lips) whilst I’ve learned never to rule out Wout van Aert of the all-conquering Jumbo squad, and the last hour’s effort here will be very much to his liking.

The likeliest outcome, however, remains a group of sixty or seventy riders, including the GC hopefuls, coming in together, with the toughest sprinters still there at the end. Make no mistake, there’s climbing to be done even after Mont Bernon with the last 500m being an 8% drag. Peter Sagan was frustrated on stage one and must be favourite here, but Michael Matthews will have circled this stage on his calendar. Caleb Ewan looked good on stage one and has proved he can cope with tough finishes, whilst Sonny Colbrelli will be hoping this is too hard for those guys and if he’s right, he could well be the beneficiary.

Despite the possibility that this could be a breakaway stage, I’ll give this one to Matthews, ahead of Colbrelli and a just-fading Sagan.

Jersey Watch

Ugh, this one gets complicated quickly, or at least it could. To begin with the easy bit, I think Sagan will be in green as of right at the end of this stage. Hard to see him not mopping up a few points at the sprintermediate (whether there’s a group up the road or not) and he should get something at the finish, too – again, regardless of whether there’s a group up the road. The only competition is Teunissen but I can’t see him holding off Sagan twice on the day, which is what he’d need to do.

Polka dots will depend on when the day’s break is brought back, and whether there are late fireworks. Greg van Avermaet could try and inveigle himself in the late attacks to hold his jersey but I’m going to guess that it will sit on different Belgian shoulders come Monday evening, with Tim Wellens grabbing points on those finishing climbs.

White and yellow, again, depend on whether a break stays free. If not, van Aert and Teunissen have a course that will suit them and can stay up with the lead group. Even with bonifications, it is hard to see anyone overtaking them. If a group does stay free, it’ll need between twenty and thirty-two seconds to have an excellent chance of containing someone who can steal a jersey. Does that happen? Probably not, but it is likelier here than on most day’s parcours in this early part of the Tour.

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