05/07 - Stage 2 - Utrecht to Zélande - 166 km

The route
On paper, this may look like an easy stage for the sprinters. The 166 km from Utrecht to Zéland are as flat as a pancake and, like in the opening stage, there are no KOM points up for grabs. Therefore, we will have to wait until the end of stage 3 before we will see a rider put on the polka dot jersey. Even though this stage sounds easy, the weather will make sure it will be anything but that.

The forecast predicts a wet start to this first regular road stage of the Tour. The rain won’t be the only weather obstacle the riders have to overcome today. Most likely, the wind will have a huge say in the final outcome.

After the intermediate sprint in Rotterdam, the riders continue towards the seaside. From here, the last 50 km take place close the water. The wind won’t be very strong at the beginning of the day. However, just as the schedule has the peloton arrive at the seaside, the wind is supposed to take on in strength. Without anywhere to seek shelter, the riders will be battling a strong cross/tail-wind from northwest. Everybody wants to be in the front of the peloton at this point. Obviously, this isn’t possible. Therefore, we can expect a lot of nervous riding, which easily could turn into total chaos with echelons all over the roads.

Approaching the last 5 km, the riders will have to tackle numerous roundabouts, which you can see by mousing over the final part of the stage on the profile at the top. On small roads, the peloton will be stretched out significantly - possibly even blown into pieces. Simply taking the wrong way around in one of the roundabouts can cost you dearly. After passing under the 3-km-to-go banner, it’s time to cross the water. Once again, the riders will be completely exposed to the wind. The pace will be extremely high. The sprinters want to be at the front with their leadout trains while the GC riders know they can’t afford to lose ground if the group breaks apart. This will make for an extremely stressful finish.

These final 3 km are straight-out on N57 - surrounded by the sea - all the way towards the finishing line. It’s a real power sprint, which favors the big riders able to push high watts through the pedals. With the strong wind, it will be very important to time your effort perfectly though.

The favorites
Without Marcel Kittel in the race, Mark Cavendish is probably the prime pick for the bunch sprints. After a difficult season last year, Cavendish now seems to be back on his A-game once again. He won four stages in Tour of California and put up an incredible fight to finish second at the British national championships on a very hilly route. Etixx Quickstep brings a very strong leadout train for the fast Manxman. With Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Martin, Zdenek Stybar, Matteo Trentin and finally Mark Renshaw to set him up, Cavendish couldn’t ask for better support. Etixx Quickstep is also one of the best teams in the crosswind. They prove this every year in the spring classics. The first 9 days of this year’s Tour de France are very important for the Belgian squad. After missing out on the stage win and yellow jersey on the opening day, they must be very eager to get it right today.

Personally, I have very high hopes for Alexander Kristoff today. The wet and windy weather won’t trouble the Norwegian at all. He doesn’t have a full team to back him up but in Luca Paolini, Jacopo Guanieri and the new Austrian champion Marco Haller, Kristoff still has enough strong riders to lead him out. The way I see it, 2015, has been his best season so far. He has consistently been winning races since his debut in February. Just over two weeks ago, Kristoff even outsprinted Peter Sagan on an uphill finish in Tour de Suisse. Today’s long and straight-out finish suits Kristoff perfectly. He’s famous for his long sprints and he knows that he has to open early in order to win. He doesn’t have a kick like Cavendish but he’s able to keep a high speed for a very long time. It’s also worth noting that Kristoff turns 28 today. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him celebrate his birthday on the top of the podium Sunday afternoon.

In the overall preview, I mentioned that the level of the sprinters in the race is very equal. Both Andre Greipel and Nacer Bouhanni could easily end up winning this stage as well. Greipel comes to the Tour fresh off winning two stages in Ster ZLM Toer. He has a strong leadout train in the shapes of Jens Debusschere, Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson but he needs his Lotto-Soudal teammates to time it perfectly if he wants to win. It’s not easy for Greipel to box around in the peloton, fighting for the right wheel. Bouhanni on the other hand has no problem boxing for positions. Everybody knows not to cut him off. It doesn’t mean that it never happens though. At the French national championships last week, Anthony Roux crossed right in front of Bouhanni in the final sprint, causing the Cofidis rider to crash hard. Luckily, Bouhanni was still able to take the start in Utrecht. The strong wind doesn’t favor the little Frenchman but if he manages to get stay near the front, few in this peloton can match him on the final meters.

The outsiders
The lack of Kittel also means that Giant-Alpecin has another front-runner for the flat stages. John Degenkolb doesn’t categorize himself as a sprinter but he has proven numerous times that he can win these kinds of bunch sprints. So far, he has won nine stages in the Vuelta a España. This year he outsprinted Kristoff to win Milano-San Remo before he went on to wing Paris-Roubaix in a sprint within a reduced group. However, Degenkolb is yet to win a Tour de France stage. The parcours suits him very well and personally, I think he’s a good bet for the green jersey. Albert Timmer, Ramon Sinkeldam and especially Koen de Kort are all fantastic at hitting the front at the right time to set up their designated sprinter. De Kort and Degenkolb usually work together very well. If they time it perfectly, Degenkolb could take another big win in his already outstanding 2015-season.

Peter Sagan is obviously in great condition at the moment. Usually, he would be fighting for the win today as well. However, in this year’s Tour de France, Sagan’s main priority is to make sure Alberto Contador is all set and taken care off. In the hectic final today, it won’t be a surprise to see Sagan focusing 100 % on Contador. Even if he ends up going for the stage win, I don’t see him as fast as the already mentioned riders. He should be able to fight for top5 in the sprints but since the team won’t target the green jersey, Sagan may decide to save energy for other stages better for suited for his characteristics.

For more fast riders with a chance to do well today, look to Arnaud Démare, Edvald Boasson, Sam Bennett, Davide Cimolai, Michael Matthews and in-shape Bryan Coquard. It might also be a good idea to keep an eye on the Lotto-Jumbo riders. They were flying in the time trial and, on home soil, they must be very eager to perform well again today. Fabian Cancellara may try something as well. He’s only 8 seconds down, meaning a stage win will put him in the yellow jersey. It will be more than difficult to escape from the peloton on the final kilometers but if anyone can do it, it’s Cancellara. Tony Martin could also try a late attack in order to make the other teams work. Martin was very disappointed to miss out on yet another yellow jersey. With a well-timed attack, he may make up for it today.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.

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