By David Hunter
Ugine – Albertville 131.5km
The race begins with a demanding day in the saddle. The stage is short but the lap circuit, in Albertville, will ensure plenty of attacking.
The opening stage of a stage race is normally a tense affair. If it’s a sprint stage, we see the sprint teams take control and share the work. Stages like these, can end with a successful break. This is because, we don’t have a race leader and no team wants to commit men to a chase, because it might not end in a sprint. Already in 2015, we have seen stage 1 breakaway success, in the TDU and Catalunya.
Cote du Villard, is 1.2km at 8.7%. This is a short, steep climb and begs to be attacked. During the lap circuit, there is only 16km between each ascent. Each time up the climb, the pace will be increased, until all hell brakes lose, last time up.
Due to the challenging parcours, most teams do not arrive with a sprinter. However, we do have Bouhanni, Mezgec and Modolo. There are also a number of fast, non-pure sprinters: Van Genechten, Gerrans, Cort, Navardauskas, Boeckmans, Alaphilippe, Gallopin and Boasson Hagen.
If the racing is hard enough to eliminate the big 3 sprinters, then it’s going to be a very close sprint. Ensuring a sprint, is going to be very hard. With plenty of attacks expected on the climb, it will need a GC team to control. Team Sky and Astana are the squads that most will look towards. I doubt Movistar and Katusha will help, as the finish doesn’t look hard enough for Valverde or Rodriguez.
The riders arriving here, come from many routes. We have some from the Giro, some from Belgium, some from France and some from Tour des Fjords. Quite a few of these riders are carrying good form and will look to strike, early in this race.
Riding into form in Norway: EBH, Jesper Hansen, Daryl Impey and Ivan Santaromita.
Coming from Belgium: Tiesj Benoot, Dylan Teuns and Jonas Van Genechten.
From France: Laurent Pichon, Alexis Vuillermoz and Julien Simon.
In form Giro riders: Sacha Modolo Simon Geschke.
Most riders will look at this stage and fancy their chances. The climb is hard enough, to hurt the sprinters and create small gaps. With a reduced peloton, it won’t be easy to close down the gaps, as we head for home. This is a tremendously crafted opening stage, as anything could happen. With some riders in great form and others looking to peak for the Tour, it creates a chance of an upset.
The riders coming from the Tour des Fjords are used to this type of stage. Both final stages of that race included a lap circuit, with a challenging climb. Impey and EBH were both very strong and looking in great condition. Their teams will want to make the race as difficult as possible and eliminate the fast men. The climb is nearly 9%, so very demanding. Having to complete it 6 times, will certainly slow the legs and even if the fast men survive, they will lose some of their sprinting power.
We have a number of riders who will look to attack on the final climb. Similar to Tour des Fjords, the Belgium Tour, contained many short hills. Tiesj Benoot, was very close to his first senior win, just losing to Greg Van Avermaet. He has the ability to power up these climbs and cause big gaps. If the move is to succeed, it needs to contain around 5 teams, so he’ll need like minded individuals to go with him. Lotto also have Kris Boeckmans, fresh from winning Tour de Picardie and the World Ports Classic. 2015 is shaping up as being his best ever and he’ll be looking to add a stage in a World Tour event. He was supported by brilliant lead out trains, in those events, but arrives here without much support. He can count on Van Der Sande, but this is not the same as being led out by Sieberg and Roelandts. Despite his brilliant form, he’ll find it hard to win a stage in this race. To compete against Bouhanni, he would need a full lead-out train.
This is something, Nacer Bouhanni, doesn’t arrive with either. He does have his loyal pilot, Geoff Soupe, a massive part in his successful 2014 Vuelta. They also have Simon and Senechal, but this is not their top train and Bouhanni could suffer because of it. The same can be said of Sacha Modolo. The Italian is fresh from 2 wins in the Giro, but arrives with a GC team. It looks like he’ll only have Pippo Pozzato, to help in the sprints. A massive part of his Giro success, was the work of Ferrari and Richeze. Without them, Modolo, is not the same threat. If I were him, I would not go into the red, on stage 1, but save my energy for stages 2 and 4.
Luca Mezgec is the other pure sprinter. He had a poor Giro, only making the podium on one occasion. It has been the story of his 2015, after a successful 2014. With most of their top riders, currently training at altitude, Mezgec only has Albert Timmer, to help in the sprints. This is not ideal and Mezgec will suffer as a result.
This stage is firmly in the balance. The sprinters will fancy their chances of surviving the climbs, the puncheurs will fancy distancing the sprinters and the breakaway specialists also like what they see! Anything can and probably will happen.
I think that Team Sky will control the morning break and make sure it doesn’t succeed. Once on the lap, the pace will be too much for Bouhanni, Modolo and Mezgec. That leaves the punchy riders, battling out the stage.
The final climb is just a little far from the finish, for a late break to succeed. I think that Orica will be the team to control the closing laps. We do have some fast finishers: EBH, Alaphilippe, Boeckmans, Farrar and Gallopin, but I think with Orica in control, Simon Gerrans has a huge chance of success. They have Meier, Keukeleire, Santaromita and the Yates twins to help control the end of the race. That leaves, Daryl Impey, as last man. Gerrans/Impey are a successful partnership. Impey’s lead out gave Gerrans a win over Sagan, in the 2013 TDF. They also combined to help Gerro beat Greipel in the 2014 TDU and win both GP Montreal and Quebec. When riding together, they usually get it right and without a pure sprinter, should be unstoppable.
Gerrans and his team, can also handle bad weather. With heavy rain forecast, this stage should turn into an elimination race and make Gerro an even bigger favourite. Keep an eye on the weather, we might get plenty of rain, this week.
Gerro to get back in winning ways, just in time for the Tour!
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