20/06 - Stage 15 - Tallard to Nîmes - 222 km

After the last tough days in the Alps, it’s now time for the sprinters to shine again. The GC riders will be happy to get a quiet day in the saddle before they will take on the Pyrenees next week. However, this stage could surprise quite a few!

The route
On paper, this is a typical transition stage in the Tour. Without any categorized climbs, this is clearly a day made for the sprinters. Still, it’s a long day - 222 km - and the weather conditions will probably scare the GC riders. There is a 50 % chance of rain during the day and if the mistral is strong, we might see the peloton split up into many groups on the final 150 km. Furthermore, most of this stage takes place on small roads. There will be a lot of anxiety in the peloton. Everybody wants to be at the front, which, on these roads, probably will result in crashes. Hopefully, we won’t see another GC contender leave this Tour de France after hitting the tarmac.

Last year, Tinkoff-Saxo and Alberto Contador took advantage of the crosswind to gain time on Chris Froome. In the end, it didn’t help Contador much but other teams may be interested in trying the same tactic today. Alejandro Valverde lost his GC ambitions on the crosswind stage in 2013. Vincenzo Nibali has proven unbeatable in the mountains so far. If Valverde and Movistar still aim to win this Tour de France, they should try to attack Astana today, if the crosswind is strong enough.

The intermediate sprint is located in La Galine with 46.5 km to go. Peter Sagan already has the green jersey in the bag, but what if he crashes out of the race? Bryan Coquard, Alexander Kristoff and Marcel Kittel are close to each other just behind Sagan in the points classification. It will be interesting to see if they want to waste energy sprinting for points with less than 50 km to go. After these last hard mountain stages, they need as much power in the legs as possible for the final sprint.

The finish
As mentioned, the weather forecast shows a 50 % chance of rain. The run-in is a bit technical already and it will be very dangerous on wet roads. The last 5.5 km include no less than six roundabouts. So far, we have seen numerous crashes in the roundabouts. On wet roads, fighting for positions, it will be a very nervous final. Let’s hope everybody will stay upright.

With a little bit more than one kilometer to go, the riders turn right onto Rue de la République. The road isn’t very wide, meaning it’s very important to be in a good position at this point. There is barely any room for moving up. It’s slightly uphill for the first 500 meters, with the final 500 meters slightly downhill, making it a very fast sprint with a beautiful finish on Boulevard de la Libération.

The favorites
If all the main sprinters are in the first group, fighting for the stage win, Marcel Kittel has got to be the prime pick. In 2013, he won four stages in the Tour. So far, Kittel has already won three stages this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if he improved last year’s performance winning five stages or more. Marcel Kittel and the rest of the sprinters still have three potential bunch sprints left. Today is one of them. On stage 14, Kittel was the last of the top sprinters to get dropped on Col d’Izoard. Giant-Shimano lost Dries Devenyns after a crash on the descent, but they still have the best leadout train in the race. We haven’t had a real bunch sprint in 10 days. Matteo Trentin ruined John Degenkolb’s chances on stage 12. Naturally, Giant-Shimano is eager to get it right today. Unless he crashes or doesn’t make the front group on the small roads, I can’t see Marcel Kittel lose this stage.

Alexander Kristoff and Andre Greipel are naturally the two biggest threats to Marcel Kittel. When all three fight for the win, Kittel wins. When Kittel is gone, Greipel wins. When Kittel and Greipel are gone, Kristoff wins. This is how it has been so far. The hierarchy is crystal clear. Just behind these three riders we will find Arnaud Démare and Bryan Coquard. Démare has been suffering with stomach problems lately, meaning he probably won’t be able to fight for the win today. Coquard, on the other hand, still seems very strong. He stayed in the peloton for a long time on Col d’Izoard, much longer than Kittel, and he’s still very eager to show his talent. Everybody has been talking about Démare and Nacer Bouhanni as the best French sprinters this season. Without Bouhanni in the race and Démare not being 100 %, Coquard has a great opportunity to show big talent today.

Sports director at Omega Pharma Quickstep, Brian Holm, says this stage may turn out to be just as crucial as stage 5 on the cobblestones. We could easily get to see a mini spring classic today. OPQS is the best team in the world for the classics. I would expect them to have something planned for today. Mark Renshaw can’t beat the top sprinters but he’s still very fast. If OPQS manages to split up the peloton and get rid of the main favorites, Renshaw might be able to give the Belgian team their third stage win in this Tour de France.

Peter Sagan is still gunning for his first stage win. The strong Slovakian has finished 2nd no less than four times in this race. He knows he can’t beat Marcel Kittel in a clean sprint. Therefore, like OPQS, Cannondale too has to try something in the expected crosswind. So far, we haven’t really seen a boring stage in this race. I doubt this will be the first one.

For other strong riders with a fast finish look to: Daniele Bennati, Ramunas Navardauskas, Samuel Dumoulin, Heinrich Haussler and Zak Dempster. Not to forget the GreenEdge duo Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini.

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