For a race that is officially considered a “classic”, Paris-Tours is perhaps the least prestigious among them—but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. (After all, Eddy Merckx never won it, and therefore cannot say that he’s won every classic.)
Started in 1896 as central France’s answer to Paris-Roubaix, the race followed a fairly flat course to Tours and quickly became known as the “Sprinters Classic”. In an effort to make it more interesting, derailleurs were banned for two years (1965 and 1966) and riders were only allowed two gears. Still, not content with what was thought to be a predictable finish, the organizers reversed the route in 1974, starting from the Tours area to somewhere in the vicinity of Paris. In 1988 the organizers decided to again reverse the route to start in Paris and end in Tours.
For a race that many still associate with sprinters, fast men have not dominated in modern times. In fact, the last 10 years have seen only four sprint finishes (including the 2010 edition – won by Oscar Freire), wind direction, and thus luck, plays a huge part. Cases in point: long escape victories by Jacky Durand in 1998, Richard Virenque in 2001, and Frederic Guesdon in 2006. Philippe Gilbert’s wins in 2008 and 2009 owe to his uncanny sense of timing. In 2009 he even out-sprinted sprinters Tom Boonen and Borut Bozic from a 3-man break!
After a 2011 season full of exciting races and what seems like an avalanche of injuries, who are the contenders for Paris-Tours? The race can be hard to guess as the right combination of a tailwind, a complacent peloton, and luck can help a long break may make it all the way to the line. And there’s a new finish that looks to create a more exciting finale. Here are our thoughts:
Riders to watch
1. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek)
Having failed to deliver a World Championship victory, or even the medal, that the Italian team and coach Paolo Bettini desperately needed (citing a chaotic finale as the main reason), we can at least say that the finale of Paris-Tours is likely to be more controlled than the Worlds finale. Bennati’s win in the Vuelta shows that he is in good shape, and his squad seems motivated enough.
2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-HighRoad)
Surprising bookies everywhere, Cavendish took a commanding win in the World Championship even without his usual sprint train, and he is keen to show that he is a deserving holder of the Rainbow Stripes. The question is whether HTC-Columbia is still motivated to support him after a long season and the coming demise of the team.
If they are, then Cavendish should be considered a top favorite. Coach Erik Zabel is not only a triple winner himself (in 1994, 2003 and 2005), he was also a key helper in Petacchi’s win when they both rode for Milram in 2007.
If HTC-Columbia is motivated but Cavendish is left out of the finale for one reason or another, could this be another race for Matty Goss?
3. Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
Freire failed to win his fourth world championship, but if his claim is to be believed it was due to misjudgment rather than form. Freire, the defending Paris-Tours champ, will be keen to exact revenge.
4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo)
Former world champ Thor Hushovd has signed up for one last classic with soon-to-be-former squad Garmin-Cervelo. His form seems good enough, judging from the Tour of Britain. He was nowhere in the Worlds finale, owing to the crash that took out compatriot Edvald Boasson-Hagen. Could Paris-Tours be his last win with the squad? He had decent performances when he was riding for French squad Credit-Agricole, including 4th in 2001 and 2006. Fellow sprinter Tyler Farrar is listed as backup, we wonder if he will ride and if so, how the strategy will be determined. Hushovd was left off of Garmin-Cervelo’s Vuelta a Espana squad and arguably didn’t have the best form for the Worlds. But his relative freshness may be an advantage.
Riders with nothing to lose
1. The not-so-suicidal break
By nature of its course, date on the race calendar, and the fact that this has felt like an injury-plagued season, we think that it is likely that a suicidal break win gloriously in Tours. Who might be the contenders? A few names come to mind.
Remember Richard Virenque’s solo win in 2001? He was just coming back from suspension, and arguably was fresher than most. When he went on the attack with compatriot Jacky Durand, himself a solo suicide attack specialist, the peloton thought that they deserved each other. It’s only much later that the peloton regretted the decision to let them both go.
Sylvain Chavanel is one rider likely to try and go the distance. After an injury hampered his Tour de France performance, his leaders jersey defense in the Vuelta shows that he has strong stamina. The question is whether anybody would let him go on a break.
We can’t help but point out that Johnny Hoogerland, our brave hero from the Tour de France, would have made a great candidate. Plus, he had been targeting Giro di Lombardia. What better way to get a very efficient training ride than to do a long break in a classic race just a week before? Unfortunately, he has called an end to his 2011 season. No Hoogie for Paris-Tours.
2. The late attack
Thomas Voeckler has had a fantastic season so far – arguably his best ever. A consistent spring netted a few wins, and a charismatic display of grit and daring in the Tour made him the most popular French cyclist. From the looks of his late breakaway in the Worlds, he still has some energy left in the tank.
This season has been an amazing one for Phillipe Gilbert, even if he was MIA in the recent Worlds road race. We think that his chances aren’t so great, after what has been a very long season. His previous wins in Paris-Tours owed to tactical mastery, but seriously – would anybody let him off the leash?
3. The lesser sprinters
A few other sprinters may benefit from the uncertainty of Paris-Tours. Romain Feillu’s starting to earn the nickname “kamikaze sprinter” in the peloton. It didn’t win him a grand tour stage yet, but he’s still steadily in the mix in the Tour of Poland, and even finished 6th in the Worlds road race. Feillu has ridden Paris-Tours several times and consistently fares rather well in the finish.
Andre Greipel is another sprinter who is arguably in good form, being a bronze medalist in the Worlds road race. The problem is he has never ridden Paris-Tours, although to his credit he seems to have the stamina for a long classics-distance races. Team OmegaPharma-Lotto is undergoing a divorce at this point, so we doubt that he will have much of a support in Paris-Tours.
One rider whom we didn’t hear much from until the last few weeks is Robbie McEwen. He had several wins in Tour de Wallonie-Picardie / Circuit Franco-Belge. To be honest, it is hard to get excited over beating second-rate sprinters this late in the season, but perhaps McEwen will have a chance anyway.
Finally, let’s not forget Klaas Lodewyk’s impressive display of stamina in the Worlds road race. He finished fourth in last year’s Paris-Tours. His chances may depend on how his two team leaders Gilbert and Greipel fare, but surely he is worthy of mention.
What do you think? Who will triumph in Tours this year?