What’s the right amount of sprint stages?

After a cold winter, we all look forward to the first proper hot day. We might even get bored of waiting and jump on a plane to our favourite coast. And then – when we do get some real sun – we all know someone who will declare: ‘This too hot, far too hot’.

Do we even know what we want anymore? Do we like bunch sprints as much as we thought? We’ve all been waiting for a sprint showdown of the calibre provided by this year’s Tour; are we really already bored? Maybe you can have too much of a good thing.

Sagan

Anybody who visited Twitter during last year’s Vuelta will have noted how most people thought the fashion for lumpy opening weeks had gone too far. The sprints we did get were small and uneventful; even Chris Froome joined in.

Matteo Trentin did his best to dazzle from the bunch but watching him crush Lorenzo Manzin and Jens Debuscherre grew old quickly. You’d have to go back to 2014 to see a Vuelta with any headline sprinters (and only if you count Nacer Bouhanni and a young Michael Matthews in the upper echelons of bunch sprinting).

By contrast, the Tour’s flat opening week was the cause of much excitement; Dylan Groenewegen and Fernando Gaviria were set to clash, Mark Cavendish was edging back to form, Matthews was ready to challenge Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel had the perfect opportunity to silence his critics.

Crashes marred stages 1 & 2, but they were still relatively entertaining. Gaviria showed why he will probably win handfuls of Grand Tour stages in each of the next five years. We were also reminded that nobody avoids crashes like Sagan. His positional sense is second to none. He stomped past Arnaud Demare to take the second stage.

However, by the time the Team Time Trial had finished the buzz around the bunch sprints had died down. Gaviria won again on stage 4. Job done. Too good.

Stage 5 and Quimper provided something a little different but in the final 200m Sagan surfaced to take the sprint. We had two more sprints on stages 7 & 8, dominated this time by a fit and firing Groenewegen.

Groenewegen

You have to admire Groenewegen’s powerful no-nonsense approach. He needs space, not wheels. Just take him close to the front and watch him fly. When he popped out of the pack on Saturday to take a dominant win he looked like he was on a motor bike (calm down, that’s not a real suggestion).

There’s been very little to talk about when it comes to the sprinters. The Cavendish/Kittel subplots have been predictable and underwhelming. I think I miss the Vuelta. Can we have mountains now?

In fairness, I haven’t mentioned the inclusion of the Mur-de-Bretagne or yesterday’s 22km of cobbles. These April throwbacks were the highlights of the opening week. John Degenkolb ended his two years of hurt with a thrilling return to the cobbles he conquered in 2015, once again besting Greg van Avermaet.

Degenkolb Tour

Dan Martin experienced similar joy when going early on the Mur. He has been a bridesmaid on that very climb plenty of times – including at the Tour in 2015 when chasing home Alexis Vuillermoz.

The open eight stages have been reminiscent of the early 2000s where consecutive sprint stages were shared between the likes of Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen. Baden Cooke would have been involved. Maybe Jan Kirsipuu would have snatched one. We’d weave through endless fields and the coastal wind would threaten to make things exciting. The commentators would constantly make reference to the fact the Alps were ‘just around the corner’.

The boring afternoons were always bound to happen. Have we forgotten this season’s various Giro go-slows? In Italy we didn’t even have a good bunch finish to fall back on.

The downside is the possibility of a mass sprinter exodus. There’s one sprint stage left before Paris and it’s difficult to blame any sprinter for leaving. Hopefully the allure of the Arc de Triomphe will prove enough of a carrot. That’s certainly the case for everybody’s new favourite rider, the battered and bruised Lawson Craddock.

The Tour does, however, suffer from the wildcard teams chosen. The French wildcard riders are lacking the right blend of courage and quality. Sylvain Chavanel has plenty of heart but at this point he’s literally just showing his face for anybody old enough to remember when he was France’s most stylish stage-hunter.

It’s also notable that the ‘bigger’ teams aren’t sending riders in the break. It’s not clear if this has anything to do with the reduced team sizes but World Tour jerseys have been almost invisible off the front of the peloton. This Tour is flattered by leading sprinters and ‘GC guys’ but this means every team has an obvious game plan. As a result, breakaways have suffered. What happened to the days where having a man out front meant you didn’t have to work?

With our sprint craving satisfied – and fresh from a dose of carnage on the cobbles – I’m definitely ready for the Alps. I’ll be ready for the fastmen again in a couple weeks’ time.


 

 

 

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