05/06 - Stage 1 Leeds to Harrogate - 190.5 km

Just like last year, the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France will be handed to one of the sprinters. The opening stage includes a couple of small hills. Still, anything but a bunch sprint in Harrogate would be a big surprise.

The route
Starting out in Leeds, the riders will take on 17.5 km in the neutral zone before the stage officially starts. This will make it a total of 208 km on the bike. The first 65 km are more or less flat. In case a break gets away early, they will be able to gain a good lead on the peloton before reaching the first categorized climb of the day. Côte de Cray is only 1.7 km long but has an average gradient of 7.1 %. Being a category 4 climb, only the first rider over the top gets a point for the KOM competition. The polka dot jersey is the big prize for the early breakaway and we should see a furious fight amongst the escapees.

Less than 10 km after Côte de Cray, it’s time for today’s intermediate sprint. Remember, after ASO adjusted the rules, there are many points up for grabs here now. Even with a breakaway up front, the sprinters targeting the green jersey will still fight for the remaining points. We might even see Cannondale setting a fast pace on the climb, trying to eliminate - or at least tire out - some of Peter Sagan’s rivals.

The riders start climbing just 20 km after the intermediate sprint. Côte de Buttertubs is the longest climb of the day. Its 4.5 km have an average gradient of 6.8 %. Just like the following Côte de Grinton Moor (3 km at 6.6 %), this category 3 climb offers 2 and 1 KOM points to the first two riders over the top. As you can see, there aren’t many points on the menu today. Still, it’s enough to make the Tour become a success already on Day 1 for one of the riders. We can expect the small teams without GC riders or top sprinters to do whatever they can to put a rider in the early break, hoping to take the polka jersey at the end of the day.

The finish
With over 60 km to go from the top of the last climb, any dropped sprinter will be able to rejoin the peloton before the final sprint. Despite the narrow roads, the final 5 km shouldn’t trouble the riders much. A roundabout with 2 km to go will stretch out the peloton a little, meaning it’s very important for the sprinters’ teams to have the front at this point. With about 500 meters to go, the road starts to kick up a little. Therefore, it’s crucial for the leadout riders not to burn out too early. The final 250 meters are straight-out, setting for a furious fight for the first yellow jersey of the race.

The favorites
In my overall preview, I pointed out that Marcel Kittel would be my number one favorite for all bunch sprints in this year’s Tour de France. The strong German won four stages last year and he had been outstanding in the Giro d’Italia (winning two stages) earlier this year, before he got sick and withdrew. Giant-Shimano has the best leadout train in the peloton with riders like Tom Veelers, Albert Timmer, John Degenkolb and Koen de Kort. Without any incidents, I’m confident we will see the black and white jerseys taking the front of the peloton just before entering the roundabout with 2 km to go. The small ascent with 500 meters to go doesn’t exactly favor Marcel Kittel, but it shouldn’t be enough to ruin his chances either. However, I must admit that I have put an asterisk next to Kittel’s name today. In the German championships last week, Kittel had to forfeit in the final sprint due to cramps. Not really the best warm-up for the Tour but according the German, it’s nothing to worry about. In case Marcel Kittel doesn’t feel 100 % in the sprint, teammate John Degenkolb will be ready to step up and take the role as designated sprinter for Giant-Shimano.

With the Tour starting out in England, naturally all eyes will be on Mark Cavendish. The Manxman has built his whole season around this opening stage finishing in Harrogate, the hometown of Cavendish’s mother. He knows the streets very well and naturally, Cavendish is extremely eager to win here and take the first yellow jersey of his career. Last year, Omega Pharma Quickstep didn’t have much of a leadout train to help Cavendish. Therefore, the Belgian team signed Mark Renshaw who used to be the best leadout rider in the world when he was with Cavendish at HTC. Together with former top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi and young Matteo Trentin, OPQS now has a very strong leadout to take care of Cavendish. However, the leadouts haven’t run smoothly this season. It will be very interesting to see if OPQS and Mark Cavendish get it right this time. Today’s result will have a big impact on how the rest of the Tour will be for both Cavendish and the team.

While most people are looking at Marcel Kittel and Marc Cavendish, don’t forget about Andre Greipel. Lotto-Belisol brings a very strong team to support their German super sprinter. With Marcel Sieberg, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Henderson to lead him out, Andre Greipel has won many races within the last couple of years. This year, Greipel is the most winning rider in the peloton, fresh off a win in the German championships last week. Today’s finish suits Greipel very well. I don’t think he will be able to beat Marcel Kittel head-to-head, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat Cavendish. In any case, it will be very close.

Lotto-Belisol, Giant-Shimano and OPQS will all be trying to take the front of the peloton on the final kilometers. The GC riders will be near the front as well, in order not to lose any time in case the peloton splits up. Everybody has fresh legs on the first day of the Tour and with so much nervousness, it would almost be a surprise not to see any crashes on these narrow roads. Hopefully, everybody stays up right though.

The outsiders
Top sprinters like Peter Sagan (and his Cannondale teammate Elia Viviani), Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) would usually be amongst the favorites for any sprint stage. However, the way I see it, they are all a level below Kittel, Cavendish and Greipel. That being said, naturally, all of them are fast enough to win this stage should crashes or other incidents mess up the final sprint.

Many teams, especially the French ones, have two sprinters in the race. Cofidis brings Julien Simon and Adrien Petit. Europcar sends Bryan Coquard and Kevin Reza, while the wild card team Bretagne - Séché Environnement has both Romain Feillu and Armindo Fonseca for the sprints. At NetApp-Endura the sprinting duo consists of Zak Demspter and Paul Voss. For other fast riders look to Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin), Danny Van Poppel (Trek), Jens Keukeleire (GreenEdge), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo).

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