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If it all comes down to a big bunch sprint, it is hard to look past John Degenkolb. As it was the case last year, he has been almost unstoppable at a time when most riders are on their knees.

Photo: Sirotti


13.10.2013 @ 13:45 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The season is coming to a close and many riders have put the curtain down on their seasons but one of the biggest classics is still up for grabs. Paris-Tours may have lost a bit of prestige in recent years but its deep history makes it one of the most coveted races on the autumn calendar. Being one of the few major classics the sprinters can realistically target, it offers an incentive for the fast men to keep going all the way to the end and no sprinter palmares is complete without one of the oldest one-day races.


The climbers had their great finale last Sunday in Il Lombardia and tomorrow it is time for the sprinters to bring their season to a close with one of their biggest classics. Traditionally, Paris-Tours brings the curtain down on the season for the sprinters who relish their chance to add one of the major races to their palmares on a mostly flat course that suits them well.


What makes Paris-Tours a highly prestigious race is its long history. First held as an amateur event in 1896, the race had a scrappy beginning and wasn't back on the calendar until five years later. Another 5-year break followed until the paper L'Auto which also organized the Tour de France, took over the reins and organized it as an annual event for professionals starting in 1906.


Since then, the race has been an important element of the international calendar with only the 1915, 1916 and 1940 events being cancelled due to the world wars. Having originally been an autumn race, the event was moved to a spring schedule for the 1911 edition and remained there until 1951. Since then, it has had its current role as one of the major season-ending races held either in late September or in early October.


It just takes a short glance at the list of winners to realize that this is one of the major races on the cycling calendar. Several big-name riders - most of them sprinters and classics specialists - have won the race but it is one of the few major classics that eluded Eddy Merckx. The Belgian could have won the race in 1968 but chose to hand the victory to teammate Guido Reybrouck and never managed to triumph in Tours. Four riders have won the race 3 times: Gustaf Daneels, Paul Mayé, Reybrouck and most recently Erik Zabel who won the 1994, 2003 and 2005 editions of the race.


With its long history and high prestige, it was no wonder that the race was included on the World Cup calendar when the major one-day races were gathered in a season-long series prior for the 1989 season. It remained an important part of that competition until its demise in 2004 and was immediately included on the ProTour calendar when that new series was introduced for the 2005 season.


Like most other major French races, the race is organized by Tour de France organizers ASO - a legacy that goes back to L'Auto and the 1906 edition of the race - and so it was part of the conflict that raged between the grand tour organizers and the UCI and culminated in 2008. Like all other races organized by ASO, RCS or Unipublic, the race was removed from the calendar in 2008 but when an agreement between the parties was reached to make up a new world calendar for the 2009 season, the race was the only one not to be reinstated as one of the major races of cycling. Since then, it has been organized as a 1.HC on the UCI Europe Tour.


This relegation has seen the race lose a bit of prestige in recent years as all ProTeams are no longer obliged to line up at the major autumn classic. This year, only 13 of the 19 ProTeams will be on the start line with the rest of the 25 teams being made up of pro continental and even continental teams.


Last year, the UCI dealt the event a further blow when they restructured the calendar. For several years, Paris-Tours was held on the first Sunday after the world championships with Il Lombardia bringing the curtain down on the classics season 6 days later. For the 2012 season, UCI decided to swap the two events around to create a better synergy between Il Lombardia and the battle for the rainbow jersey. While the Italian classic has seen a boosted line-up for its two most recent editions, the French race has found it more difficult to attract the major sprinters who have often ended their season at this time of the year. This has of course been aggravated by the hilly courses for the two most recent world championships road races. While several strong sprinters will be at the start line, it is an indication of the loss of prestige that riders like Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish have not found it worthwhile to include it on the calendar


It is no wonder that the race has been a stomping ground for sprinters. Held in a part of France that is mostly flat, the amount of climbing is bearable and the race often ends in a bunch sprint. Since 1919, the organizers have tried to make things a bit tougher by approaching Tours from different directions to add more climbs but it has made little difference. Between 1974 and 1987, the route constantly changed and changed name several times as numerous editions didn't even finish in Tours. In 1988, the race was back in its usual finishing city even though the shorter distances of modern day cycling means that a start in Paris is no longer possible. Due to its position as a Europe Tour race, the race is no longer one of the longest on a the calendar with the length having been shortened from 250-260km to around 230km since the 2009 edition.


That being said, the sprinters have often been foiled in recent years. The approach to Tours includes several smaller hills and they have been enough to deny the sprinters the chance to sprint for victory. Since the year 2000, only 4 editions have finished in bunch sprints with the most recent coming in 2010 when Oscar Freire took his only win in the race. For many years, the race was known for its long finishing straight on the famous Avenue de Grammont but since 2011, the construction of a new tram line has forced ASO to shorten the straight, making life even more difficult for the sprinters.


Last year, Marco Marcato took a maiden classics win when the Italian made it into a three-rider group with Niki Terpstra and Laurens De Vreese that stayed away to the finish in a chaotic finale that saw several smaller groups escape late in the race. Marcato beat De Vreese and Terpstra in the sprint while pre-race favourite John Degenkolb made a desperate attempt to get across but could only manage 4th 6 seconds behind the front trio. Marcato, Terpstra, De Vreese and Degenkolb will all be back on the start line for the 107th edition of the race.


The course

ASO usually modifies the route slightly from year to year but the main characteristics of the course remain the same. Since 2009, the length has usually been at around 230km and the race starts somewhere north of Tours and continues in a mostly southern direction towards the finish and the traditional small loop around the city that sends the riders up a few smaller climbs during the run-in to the great finale on Avenue de Grammont. This year will be no different and the 2013 edition shapes up to be a classic version of the race.


As said, the days when the race started in Paris are long gone and this year's edition will start a little closer to Tours than it did last year. Authon-du-Perche has been chosen as the site of departure and to reach the required distance, the riders won't head south right from the beginning. Instead, they will travel in a northwestern direction before reaching the course for last year's edition where they will make a right-hand turn to head south towards Tours. From there, the course will be identical to last year's and will have a total length of 235km which is more or less the same as the 235,5km one year ago.


The long southern journey is mostly flat with only a few small climbs included along the way to tire out the riders' legs. The only real difficulty is the wind that has often had a major impact on the race. As usual the riders will continue past Tours and make a small loop in the area southeast of the city to approach the finish from a southwestern direction. This is where the main difficulties are all located as the riders are led onto small, twisting roads that are mostly flat but have a number of smaller climbs of which three deserve a mention.


Things kick off with the Cote de Crochu 30,5km from the finish but the scene for the decisive attacks that may foil the sprinters are the Cote de Beau Soleil and Cote de l'Epan that are located 10km and 7km from  the finish respectively. At the top of both climbs you continue for a little while before reaching the descents. The final of those leads onto the final 5km stretch that is almost entirely flat. As said, the finishing straight on the Avenue de Grammont has been shortened since 2011, making it more feasible for the attackers to stay away all the way to the finish.


It would be a mistake to compare Paris-Tours to a flat stage in a grand tour. Due to the lack of geographical challenges, the classics specialists have to ride hard to produce the kind of selection that can allow them to go for the victory and the most recent editions have all been raced at very high speed with 2012 being a slight exception. Last year, Oscar Freire's 2010 record was broken when Marcato covered the distance at an average speed of 48,629km/h.


The early part of the stage usually pans out like every other race with the creation of an early breakaway but for the riders, it's about staying careful all the time. Whenever there's a chance to split things up in the wind, one or more teams will try to exploit the situation and the final 50km are usually a festival of attacks with numerous groups going up the road at different points of the race. The decisive attacks are usually launched on the two climbs inside the final 10km but may take off a bit earlier as it was the case last year when Marcato's group got away with 25km to go before being trimmed down to a trio on the late climbs. In 2011, the selection was made in the wind more than 50km from the finish. The final 7km from the Cote de l'Epan to the finish usually develop into a fierce pursuit where the sprinters' try to organize their depleted squads in a final attempt to reel in the escapees.


The weather

For a flat race like Paris-Tours, the weather plays a crucial role as the wind is often one of the key factors that shapes the race. This year should offer one of the easier editions as the riders will generally have pleasant conditions for their ride.


At the start in Authon-du-Perche, the riders will face cloudy conditions and cool temperatures around the 8-degree mark. As they day goes on, the sun will start to make its presence felt and it should be around 13 degrees when the race comes to a close in Tours. There will be no rain.


There will only be a light wind from a southern direction which means that the riders will have a crosswind in the first part of the race but generally face a headwind for most of the day as they head towards Tours. When they make their final small loop around the finishing city, they will turn into a crosswind that will become a tailwind as they get closer to the finish. There will be a cross-tailwind on the final run-in to Tours but due to the pleasant conditions, the wind is not expected to have a major impact on the race.


The favourites

With nice weather expected and a general headwind, the race is expected to be one of the easier editions of the famous French autumn classic. It will be much easier to hide in the peloton throughout the day and most riders will be fresh when they turn into the light crosswind towards the end of the stage. The wind conditions may favour the attackers on the run-in to the finish but the conditions will generally allow the sprint teams to stay fresher than usual and this enhances the chances that we will see the first bunch sprint since 2010.


If it all comes down to a big bunch sprint, it is hard to look past John Degenkolb as the favourite. The German had a terrible start to the season where he perennially failed to make any impact on the bunch sprints. However, his legs started to come around after the Tour de France when he won the Vattenfall Cyclassics and finished 2nd behind Andre Greipel in the Brussels Cycling Classic and since then he has been almost unstoppable. He was strong in the GP Ouest France-Plouay, the Canadian WorldTour races and the world championships where he rode well on tough climbs. As it was the case last year, he has been almost unstoppable in the final part of the season at a time where most riders are on their knees. He won two stages in the Tour de l'Eurometropole and he showed that he is ready when he won Thursday's big preparation race, Paris-Bourges.


Degenkolb is supported by a very strong team and has the strongest lead-out train at his disposal. Most of the team rode together in the recent races and have fine-tuned their automatisms for the big finale. Degenkolb may not be the fastest sprinter in the race but with his current condition and strong team support, he will be hard to beat.


What speaks against a Degenkolb win is the fact that the race may not be as hard as it has been in recent editions. Degenkolb benefits from tough conditions that wears out his faster rivals and he hopes that the race will be an aggressive one towards the end. If he feels that a bunch sprint is in danger, he is even strong enough to mix it up with the best attackers on the final climbs as he did last year when he tried to catch the front trio on his own. With numerous weapons in his arsenal, Degenkolb will be the man to beat.


While Degenkolb is the in-form sprinter in the race, the fastest one is probably Arnaud Demare. The Frenchman won the Grand Prix d'Isbergues a few weeks ago but failed to make much of an impact in the bunch sprints in the Tour de l'Eutrometropole. However, he showed that he is ready when he finished 2nd behind Degenkolb in Bourges on Thursday.


Demare is an extremely fast finisher and he has a strong team at his disposal. On the other hand, he usually struggles when it comes to the crucial positioning in the hectic run-in and his lack of results in last week's stage race was more due to that weakness than to his actual speed. Too often he finishes outside the top 10 in races where he should be a solid winner candidate. That may happen again in Tours but if he gets a clear run to the line, he could be the man to beat Degenkolb.


The other French sprinter who could do so is young Bryan Coquard. Few would have expected the Europcar rider to have the kind of debut season he has had with no less than 6 victories. There is no doubt that Coquard is one of the fastest riders in the peloton but like Demare, he struggles when it comes to the positioning aspect. That will be a big disadvantage in a race that is as fiercely contested as Paris-Tours.


At the same time, Coquard appears to pay the price at the end of what has been a long season. While he rode really well in late August and early September when he even climbed exceptionally well in the Canadian WorldTour races, he has been unable to reproduce those kinds of performances in the last few weeks. On Sunday, he was delivered perfectly to the line by his team in the uphill sprint in the Tour de Vendee but drifted backwards to finish a disappointing 6th. In Paris-Bourges, he made the unusual choice of riding aggressively and enter the early break instead of going for the win in a finish that suited him well. All this speaks against a Coquard win but it would be a mistake to rule the Europcar rider out. He is certainly one of the fastest riders in the race!


Andre Greipel has ended his season but that doesn't mean that Lotto Belisol are without their options in Paris-Tours. A few weeks ago, Jurgen Roelandts was probably expected to be the captain in the race but the last few races may have changed that strategy. Jens Debusschere rode really well when he won the Tour de l'Eurometropole overall last week. He won the first stage in a bunch sprint and proved that it was no fluke by finishing in the top 10 in all stages and he was only narrowly beaten by Degenkolb on the final day. He showed his strength on Tuesday in the uphill finish in Binche-Chimay-Binche when he mixed it up with classics specialists like Bjorn Leukemans, Greg Van Avermaet and Lars Boom in a finish that suited them perfectly. He will be hampered by a small 5-rider team but will count on the experience of Roelandts in the lead-out. At his current level, he will survive the final climbs well and that kind of freshness may be what gives him another win.


Tyler Farrar could finally tick off the box of winning in Europe when he took a stage victory in the Tour de l'Eurometropole after several near-misses in the final part of the season. The American has generally been riding really well and been in splendid condition but he has failed to take the desired results, mostly because he is not as fast as he was earlier in his career. However, he still remains a very fast sprinter and with Coquard being the major exception, he beat all of his major Paris-Tours rivals when he won last week. He has a very strong team to support him and is surrounded by numerous fast riders. If they manage to get everything right, Farrar could prove that he is back on track by winning one of the major sprint classics.


A sprint may be the most likely outcome but it is hard to look past the fact that the sprinters have mostly been denied in recent years. The changed finish with a shorter finishing straight will only add to the sprinters' struggles while things get even more complicated by the fact that many of the major sprinters are missing from the race and so fewer teams will ride wholeheartedly to set up a bunch sprint.


Several riders mark themselves out as dangerous attackers on one of the two final climbs but Enrico Gasparotto seems to be the man to follow. The Astana rider is riding really well at the moment as he proved when he finished 18th in Milan-Turin and 5th in Il Lombardia on courses that should actually be too hard for him. That kind of form will be lethal if he sets off on one of the final climbs and he has the fast sprint that is needed to finish it off if he arrives at the line with a small group.


The same can be said about 2011 winner Greg Van Avermaet who has had his possibly best season to date. He has been on fire in the second part of the season and has featured prominently in almost every race he has entered. Since he started the Tour de Wallonie, he has had 26 race days and he has finished in the top 5 thirteen times. As expected, the world championships and Il Lombardia were a bit too hard for him but now he is back in the terrain where he really excels. He proved his form when he finished 2nd in Binche-Chimay-Binche just two days after completing a very hard edition of Il Lombardia. He will have to get away in a small group on one of the final climbs. If he does so, he will be a danger man due to his fast sprint.


The man that reeled Van Avermaet in on Tuesday was Bjorn Leukemans who finished 3rd in that race to prove the good condition that he has shown all autumn. He may not have had the kind of results that he has wished but that is more due to his lack of sprinting prowess than a lack of form. It is no wonder that he was selected as an integral part of the Belgian team for the world championships. He will be one of the riders to look out for in the finale where he is almost guaranteed to launch an attack. His major disadvantage is that he is not as fast as the other potential aggressors but could benefit from any tactical standstill that may arise.


Lotto Belisol is likely to back Jens Debusschere in a sprint but that doesn't mean that Jurgen Roelandts will be without a chance. The Belgian is likely to get the role of covering the late attacks. He may not have been at his best recently but he usually thrives in the terrain that comes at the end of Paris-Tours and he will try to get into the moves on the final climbs. If he manages to do so, he will be very difficult to beat as he is probably the fastest of the riders that are likely to mix it up in this kind of action.


Finally, Lars Boom deserves a mention. The Dutchman has been riding well in the autumn but chose to forgo the world championships to be present at the birth of his child. He has now returned to action and showed that he is still riding well when he finished 4th in the tough finish in Tuesday's Binche-Chimay-Binche. He will try to escape on one of the final climbs and he has the power to keep the peloton at bay on the final run-in to the finish. Furthermore, he is a fast sprinter and may end his season on a high by taking his first big classics win.


***** John Degenkolb

**** Arnaud Demare, Bryan Coquard

*** Jens Debusschere, Tyler Farrar, Enrico Gasparotto

** Greg Van Avermaet, Bjorn Leukemans, Jurgen Roelandts, Lars Boom

* Marco Marcato, Thomas Voeckler, Michael Van Staeyen, Samuel Dumoulin, Sep Vanmarcke, Niki Terpstra, Heinrich Haussler



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