Article by Todd Hofert
The Tour de France kicks off Saturday, July 4th in Utrecht, The Netherlands. It marks the first time the Tour has visited Utrecht and they are honored to act as the host for the Grand Départ as well as the finish of that day’s Stage 1, a 13.8km ITT. They will also host the start of Stage 2.
The Dutch are quite simply a cycling-crazed nation. Utrecht, very near the geographic center of the small country, expects as many as one million spectators along the opening stage route through the streets of the old city. The short course is flat as a stroopwafel and well suited to the powerful time trial specialists.
Many in the host nation pin their hopes on countryman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) to pull on the first Maillot Jaune of the Tour. The 24-year-old Dutchman from Maastricht has the pedigree. He is the current (2014) Dutch National Time Trial Champion, he placed third in the 2014 World Time Trial Championship and is fresh off an Individual Time Trial win at the Tour de Suisse.
A more likely scenario sees a veteran specialist like Tony Martin (Etixx – QuickStep) winning in Utrecht. The GC contenders will be content to mark their rivals and stay upright having little interest in defending a yellow jersey from day one.
Stage 2 is an equally flat stage of 166km. The riders will take the start again in Utrecht and head southwest toward the North Sea and the tiny island of Zélande. The first points for the Maillot Vert will be contested in Rotterdam and of course at the finish in Zélande. Will the wind swept flatlands of Holland cause ‘waaiers’, or echelons to form with splits that steal the day away from the sprinters? Not likely, a sprint finish is a near certainty and the likes of Cavendish (Etixx – QuickStep), Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) will have their sleeves rolled up looking to capture the Tour’s first Green Jersey.
Sagan, if allowed, will be chasing Green without a team to support him as all Tinkoff-Saxo’s efforts will be focused on protecting Alberto Contador and his GC aspirations. Sagan, however, has managed to win Green in each of the last three years with a less than stellar supporting cast when compared with his points chasing rivals. Kittel’s form is still uncertain after a spring lost to illness. Will he have the top end required to truly compete for the points classification? All things considered, Cavendish may be the favorite for Green lining up in Utrecht but watch for Kristoff (Katusha), Griepel (Lotto-Soudal), Viviani (Sky) or Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin). All are more than capable of contending. This first sprint stage should answer some questions.
The Netherlands and their orange-clad fans will see The Tour cross the border into Belgium for the Stage 3 start in Anvers. Whoever wears the Maillot Jaune on Stage 2 is likely to lose it on Stage 3. Finishing on the Mur de Huy(The Wall of Huy), a staple in the Ardennes Classics, most notably La Flèche Wallonne, has been said to be one of the most spectacular finishing climbs in cycling. Short and steep, it sets up well for the puncheurs.
The Stage 3 pressure will come from teams looking to steal the yellow jersey or keep it within their team. Should Tony Martin (Etixx – QuickStep) have the jersey coming off a win in the Stage 1 Time Trial, we may see it passed to a teammate. Michal Kwiatkowski or young Spring Classics phenom Julian Alaphilippe are equally well suited for the finish on ‘The Wall’ and could see Tony Martin clad in yellow doing the lions share of the work to establish the team tactics as he has done all spring long.
The Polka Dot Jersey will also be up for grabs in Stage 3 with four categorized climbs on the day. The breakaway of the day may well see the best opportunity for someone looking to steal the first Polka Dot Jersey of this year’s Tour. The three climbs that precede the Mur are all category 4 offering a single point to the first rider to cross the summit.
There will be chaos as the race approaches the Mur. Positioning at the base of the climb is critical. Get it wrong and your chances are lost. With a yellow jersey waiting at the top, the fight for getting it right will be a no holds barred affair. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), coming off an exceptional spring campaign, could look to grab yellow. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) or one of a number of Orica-GreenEdge riders could do the same. Being close enough to the winning time in the Stage 1 time trial along with the time bonuses offered in Stage 2 will be the keys for those who can contend for a shot at yellow on the Mur. (The bonuses will be of 10, 6 and 4 seconds for the first three places on each of Stages 2 – 8 this year.)