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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR — PHASE 1: THE LOW COUNTRY

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July 3, 2015 – Over the next three weeks, I will be assessing the courses and likely outcomes of each phase of what should be a fascinating 102nd edition of the Tour de France. I’ve divided the race into seven parts, starting with a first phase across the Low Country—the English translation for the Netherlands (or Pays Bays in French) and the Belgian plains—that should set the pattern for the rest of the Tour.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

This opener comprises three very different stages: a short individual time trial in the city of Utrecht on Saturday; a completely flat, likely windswept road race along the Dutch North Sea coast on Sunday; and a mainly flat run across Belgium to a finale featuring the Tour’s first 4th and 3rd category climbs on Monday.

Stage 1 (July 4): Utrecht time trial 13.8km
Flat course in city streets with two-dozen turns

This is the sixth time that the Tour de France has started in the Netherlands, with the last four times featuring an opening-day time trial, the same as this year. Two of those time trials were won by specialists—Jan Raas at Leiden in 1978 and Fabian Cancellara at Rotterdam in 2010—while two went to yellow jersey contenders—Joop Zoetemelk at Scheveningen in 1973 and Alex Zülle at Den Bosch in 1996.

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The specialists are likely to win this time, but the performances of the top race favorites (see my other column “The Top 10 Tour Contenders”) relative to each other will be a strong guide to which ones have the best legs for a highly difficult first half of the Tour.

Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, dating from Roman times. It boasts a 900-year-old cathedral, the biggest Dutch university and the country’s largest and busiest rail station—all of which the 198 starters will race past in the 13.8-kilometer (8.55-mile) time trial.

The frying-pan-shaped course starts at the modern trade center in the western section of the city, briefly heads south to a roundabout before swinging left, crossing the first of seven canal bridges and passing the FC Utrecht soccer stadium to the science park of the university in the east; it becomes more technical on the 8-kilometer (5-mile) return journey as it traverses some of the city’s medieval streets, including a winding 2-kilometer stretch alongside one of the canals, before finishing outside the Victorian-era central rail station.

With some 24 changes in direction (including right-angle turns, sharp curves and roundabouts), the course is far more challenging than a straight out-and-back time trial and demands constant sprinting out of corners—so it will likely favor a classics specialist such as Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) over a pure power rider such as Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step).

The powerful Dutch riders Tom Dumoulin of Giant-Alpecin (winner of both time trials at the recent Tour de Suisse) and Niki Terpstra of Etixx will be shooting for a home win in the hope of emulating their countrymen, Raas and Zoetemelk, who wore the Tour’s first yellow jersey in the past. Other potential stage winners include BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis and Movistar’s Adriano Malori.

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Interestingly, three of those earlier opening time trials were affected by rain (and slippery streets), one of the potential challenges in this part of the world. The latest forecast for Saturday is that the current heat wave will break somewhat, with 90-degree temperatures in the early afternoon, later “cooling” to 85 degrees with a faint chance of rain for the later starters. Moderate winds of 15 kph will switch from southerly (meaning crosswinds most of the way) to westerly later on—and that will help the later starters in the first 5 kilometers, leaving them stronger for the head- or crosswinds on the way back.

Traditionally, an initial time trial—and this one is almost twice as long as the more usual prologue—is a good gauge of the overall favorites’ form. Furthermore, this is the only individual time trial of the 2015 Tour, so look for an intense battle for seconds (and a psychological advantage) between the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Froome (Sky), who all start within five minutes of each other at the end of the field, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who has chosen to start more than two hours earlier, hoping to avoid the possibly wet roads.

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Froome should be the fastest of this quartet, while Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) both have the potential for top-five finishes and make the Stars-and-Stripes fly high on this Fourth of July.

Also look for the sprinters, especially Mark Cavendish (Etixx), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), to do strong rides in this time trial. Not only does their strength sprinting out of corners help them, but they also have the incentive of shooting for the yellow jersey on Sunday. That’s because the organizers have restored time bonuses of 10, six and four seconds for the first three finishers on each of the opening seven road stages. There’s also an increased number of points for winners of flat stages in the green jersey competition (which will favor men like Cavendish over Sagan), while points are available at the mid-stage sprint every day, a fact that tends to keep the race more tightly controlled on the opening road stages.

Stage 2 (July 5): Utrecht–Zeeland (Neeltje Jans) 166km
Flat course along coast with likely crosswinds

On paper, stage 2 across the lowest parts of the Netherlands (including some roads below sea level) is certain to end in a bunch sprint. But how big that final group will be is another matter. Once the race has passed the halfway point in Rotterdam, with its intermediate sprint, the riders will almost certainly be battling head and side winds for the remaining 80 kilometers as the route winds across the Schelde River delta, often on long, exposed bridges and dykes. The latest forecast for Sunday calls for 20-kph westerly winds—with a 90-percent chance of rain showers in the late afternoon making the racing even more difficult!

When an early stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia was raced on some of these same roads, the peloton was split into multiple echelons by the crosswinds, while crashes caused by the high speeds through towns dotted with traffic islands and roundabouts saw race favorites such as Cadel Evans and Brad Wiggins losing up to four minutes. And the final 50 kilometers of this Tour stage are immediately adjacent to the sea, with the route gradually turning south, making the impact of crosswinds stronger in the final half-hour—notably across a long bridge in the final kilometer.

That Giro stage four years ago was won in a reduced bunch sprint by Belgian racer Wouter Weylandt (who would die in a tragic accident at the following year’s Giro). At this year’s Tour, neither Cavendish, nor Degenkolb, nor Sagan would be surprise stage winners in Zeeland, but the hottest tips are Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel, Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, Bora-Argon 18’s Sam Bennnett and Orica-GreenEdge’s Michael Matthews or Simon Gerrans—whose teams have no true GC favorites to protect.

Kristoff-Flanders

Like Evans and Wiggins in the 2011 Giro, this opening Tour road stage could also spell danger for Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) or Quintana—all of them lightly built climbers. So this stage will be a battle between the teams of the sprinters and the pre-race favorites, while all of the top teams will be trying to keep their leaders close to the head of the peloton to give them the best chance of avoiding crashes and getting into the front group when the crosswinds and the speed split the peloton.

Stage 3 (July 6): Antwerp–Huy 157km
Flat opening then Ardennes hills with summit finish

Should Pinot, Rodriguez, Quintana and the other climbers survive the battle of the polders in good shape, they will be favored to win on Monday in Belgium. After an overnight transfer to Antwerp—the city of diamond merchants—stage 3 heads southeast across the flatlands of central Belgium for 100 kilometers before crossing the Meuse River at Andenne and entering the Ardennes.

There are still signs here of the Battle of the Bulge, which was fought in the Ardennes hill country toward the end of World War II; and seven decades later Tour followers are expecting to witness a number of skirmishes over three Category 4 climbs—the Bohisseau (2.4 kilometers at 5.5 percent, at 50 kilometer to go), Ereffe (2.1 kilometers at 5 percent, 16 kilometers to go) and the Cherave (1.3 kilometer at 8.1 percent, just 5.5 kilometers from the line)—before a first-time Tour stage finish up the infamous Mur de Huy (a 1.3 kilometer “wall” that has an average grade of 9.6 percent, with the insides of its double switchbacks a dizzying 20 percent).

RODRIGUEZ Joaquin038pp

When the organizers used these narrow Ardennes roads and an almost identical finale for this year’s Flèche Wallonne classic, there were frequent crashes that delayed star riders, including Froome and Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin). Those two are both candidates for winning this stage on the Mur de Huy, along with others who’ve performed well here in the spring classic—such as three-time Flèche winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Martin’s team leader Ryder Hesjedal. But a much higher priority for Froome and the other overall contenders will be to not lose time. That will be a difficult task; minutes can be conceded if you’re involved in or held up by a crash, while a half-minute or more can be lost by not being well positioned at the foot of the Mur de Huy.

The Mur has become part of cycling lore since hosting the finish of the Flèche Wallonne over the past four decades, and it was inevitable that one day the Tour would finish a stage here. The Ardennes are used frequently by the Tour organizers, and these short, steep climbs often play a significant role in the final outcome.

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The most notable instance came on the fifth stage of the 1967 Tour when French national team member Roger Pingeon—who was riding support for team leader Raymond Poulidor—attacked from a breakaway group on the Ardennes’ Mur de Thuin, won the stage solo and took an effective six-minute lead on the race favorites and ended up winning that Tour.

But with so many more teams involved in today’s race with so many riders vying for the yellow jersey, don’t expect any long-distance breakaways to succeed in the first week of this Tour.

(In the next of these stage preview columns—Phase 2: North France—I will look at stages 4, 5 and 6.)

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson

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