Welcome to the Tour de France! Every day of the next three weeks you’ll have a guide to the day’s racing along with all the goings on the Tour has to offer. That means everything from the Grand Depart to the Champs Elysees with all we can fit in between. Let’s not mess about, this is all about the racing now.
The Stage: Noirmoutier-en-l'Île to Fontenay-le-Comte, 201km
We have a flat stage to start our festival of cycling but there’s already history at Noirmoutier-en-l'Île – in 1999 when the tour came here an extremely slippy surface caused a massive crash and the Tour was over for many given the six-minute split after the field had recovered. That included the pre-race favourite Alex Zulle
There’s rain set for the course on Saturday according to forecasts, and the danger here is just as obvious; The yellow jersey is up for grabs and all the fastmen have the chance to take it, so there’s danger afoot for the overall contenders as the main guys fight for position.
Secondly, there’s the wind. Much of the route follows the twisting Vendée coastline, and we’ve seen previous Tours be decided by echelons early on before – notably in Holland five years ago as news came over race radio that Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was in trouble, leading Etixx-Quick Step put the hammer down and split the race to pieces in the crosswinds. That day Froome ended with a 12-second advantage over Alberto Contador, 1:21 over Nibali and 1:36 over Quintana. That last gap would prove to be pivotal – he won by 1:12.
There is a danger point at the finish; A tight right-hand turn with 1.4 kilometres left, before 800 metres of uphill false flat.
Roll up quick-men, this is one of two chances you’ll have to take yellow. The contenders are obvious. Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-NL Jumbo) won on the Champs Elysées last year and has nine wins this year including a very similar finish at Paris-Nice when he took the rise to the line and beat Elia Viviani, who would take the points at the Giro D’Italia.
Fernando Gaviria is Quick-Step’s latest sprinting sensation and with good reason. A four-time stage winner at the Giro D’Italia last year, he was injured and missed the spring classics season but he’s returned in fine form since. A hat-trick of wins at the Tour of California, where he beat Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and Caleb Ewan, absent from this Tour, here. The slight rise ought to be just perfect for him too.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) took his customary win at the Tour du Suisse, although he has amazingly never won a full bunch sprint at the Tour. That said, this final suits him a great deal more than most which gives him a chance at the finish.
Arnaud Demare (FDJ) has had a quiet season of it but this year the whole team is set up in his service instead of last year and he got the better of Gaviria in the last stage of the Tour de Suisse. That was perfect timing for the Frenchman and he has to rate a big contender.
We will learn a lot about Mark Cavendish’s level of fitness here. The Dimension Data man has had a wretched last couple of years with mononucleosis and several bad crashes, so is a total unknown really but if he’s back to something like his best then he has multiple chances to gain another stage win – is the tally of 34, the same as Merckx, within reach?
Marcel Kittel would have been a hot favourite a year ago but how time flies – the grass has not proven to be greener for him at Katusha and at the Tour of Slovenia he looked to have lost confidence as well as form with his sprint train too. He must recover quickly.
Michael Matthews of Sunweb took green last year, thanks mainly to his ability to climb and fill the Sagan role after the latter was disqualified early last year. He’s in fine form, however – he was second in the points standings of the Tour de Suisse and hit the crossbar a great amount.