Big game fishing is all the rage for one brawny Slovak, writes Anthony Tan from Boulogne-sur-Mer.
On October 19 last year, the day after the Tour de France route was (officially) unveiled in Paris at the Palais de Congres, five-time winner Bernard Hinault decided to survey the finish of today’s third stage. “If the riders so desire, and if the wind gets up,” he said, “this should be a really beautiful stage, with significant gaps at the finish.”
While running close to the English Channel the stage did not run alongside the wind-blasted coastline. The echelons we have seen when the race has previously come to this French fishing port (1949, won by Belgian Norbert Callends; 1994, won by Dutch sprinter Jean-Paul van Poppel; and 2001, won by Germany’s Erik Zabel) and have made proceedings so exciting – and dangerous – did not eventuate.
But in the opening week of the Tour you do not need wind to create havoc. (Tuesday’s medical communiqué filled an entire page, with Kanstantsin Sivtsov of Team Sky and Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar the first casualties of war.)
Especially when race organiser Christian Prudhomme decides to place six categorised climbs in the Boulonnais hills in the final 65 kilometres, with four of those in the final 16 clicks. “This could turn out to be the first crucial point of the Tour,” Jean-François Pescheux, the Tour’s technical director, surmised in the official guide. “There is no chance of us seeing the sprinters in action at the finish.”
No chance unless your name is Peter Sagan, that is.
Perhaps some mercy was taken by eschewing the nearby pavé of chemin des Prières or des Abattoirs we regularly see at Paris-Roubaix, though for the peloton I’m sure that was cold comfort. As things turned out, the finale stage was raced in much the same vein as the opening road stage to Seraing two days previous – tailor-made for the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara and Edvald Boassen Hagen but with a certain Slovak wunderkind in indomitable form, they all had to settle for second or worse.
The 700-metre-long finish that averaged a rather dizzying 7.4 percent had puncheur written all over it, but as we saw in Seraing, climbs such as these also lend themselves to the grimpeurs (climbers). In the end, though, there could only be one winner, as I tweeted straight after scouting the finish in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a few hours before the peloton’s arrival.
#TdF Stage 3 prediction: driving up the 700m finishing straight that averages a leg-sapping 7.4%, there can only be one winner... Sagan!— Anthony Tan (@anthony_tan) July 3, 2012
Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France, defined the ideal race as one that finished with a single cyclist surviving.
Such a scenario is unlikely to happen this year. The 2012 parcours is the antithesis of a typical Giro d’Italia percorso and was designed to encourage more spontaneity, and more attacking further out from the line. “The route has been made so more favourites can potentially be in it,” Prudhomme said last October. “So a guy who is good in time trials can say, ‘Ah, I might have a chance,’ and others will say, ‘Since there are fewer summit finishes, I have to attack from farther out.’ And there’s precisely the layout to allow attacks from farther out.”
We haven’t seen a stage in the Tour like this for some time. And we haven’t seen a rider like Sagan since Eddy Merckx. Though the “significant gaps” Hinault and Pescheux suggested may happen did not materialise, at least among the top GC contenders.
So far, it seems, things are going precisely to plan. At least for Monsieur Prudhomme, anyway.