It’s mid-October. Leaves are turning, cyclocross is in full swing, and Lance Armstrong's already tweeting about the beer he's drinking. It must be time for France’s fall monument: Paris-Tours. Traditionally known as a sprinter’s classic, Paris-Tours has been known to see its fair share of breakaway winners. In fact, seven of the last ten victors have done so via an escape .
This year’s start list is packed with riders capable of following both the traditional and the contemporary scripts—it will be up to their teams to decide how things ultimately play-out.
So let’s group the most relevant teams according to what could be considered their strategies heading into Sunday’s event. We'll start with the teams “Hoping for a Sprint”:
Garmin –Slipstream is the first team that comes to mind when discussing teams working for a field sprint. Tyler Farrar won two stages and the overall at the Circuit Franco-Belge, and he’s certainly capable of winning his second classic of the year. He’ll have some tough competition from the other sprinters' teams, but if his colleagues can hold things together, he just might deliver the goods. One final note: my list has Will Frischkorn taking the line for what could be his last professional race in the Europe. Does a final suicide breakaway--a la Jacky Durand--beckon? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: stranger things have happened.
Along with Garmin, Columbia-HTC—with Andre Greipel—will be the team everyone looks to on Sunday to control the field. They have a deeper team than Garmin with both Boassen Hagen and Tony Martin able to play the role of “dangerous breakaway rider”. If one of these two gets in a move late-race, look for Garmin to assume the pressure to chase, possibly giving Greipel a first class ticket to the line. Furthermore, I still sense some bad blood between Boassen Hagen and Columbia's management; I doubt they’ll work too hard for the young Norwegian--especially at the expense of Greipel.
On paper, Quick Step’s a sprinter's team for Sunday. With Tom Boonen one must imagine the team will be working to deliver him to the line. To me though, the real favorite from Lefevre’s boys comes in the shape of Allan Davis. Davis has been knocking on the door of a big win all season—he just might come through here. If I were driving the car and I thought Boonen’s ego could handle it, I’d get him to lead-out Davis for the win, not vice versa. Otherwise, Sylvain Chavanel will be there to cover dangerous attacks—possibly enabling him to get the win himself. Notice the absence of Stijn Devolder--again--it gets more and conspicuous with each race.
And finally, Milram’s on the line, hoping Gerald Ciolek can score the big win he and the squad have been craving all season. It would be a fitting response to the UCI’s decision to grant the team only a 1-year renewal at the Pro Tour level. If Ciolek takes it, few will be surprised; he's got talent to spare, but a team yet to prove itself able to help him exploit it.
Now let's turn our gaze to those squads “Gunning for a Breakaway”.
Silence-Lotto comes to Paris-Tours brimming with confidence. Cadel Evans just won Worlds, then promptly helped Philippe Gilbert take a well-fought win in the Coppa Sabatini. If Gilbert gets to the line in any sort of selection, look for him to take his team’s second major win in a fortnight. What impressed me most about his Sabatini victory was the fact that he beat 23 other riders to get it—practically a field sprint! Granted, the competition Sunday will be much more fierce, but Gilbert’s clearly in the midst of the best form he’s had in years. And let’s not forget Greg Van Avermaet. He’s riding well and could be ready to step-in should Gilbert’s day not go as planned, particularly in the event of a sprint.
Katusha also comes to the race looking to emerge victorious due to the efforts of its escape artists. Filippo Pozzato’s their clear leader with men such as Mikhail Ignatiev and Sergei Ivanov able to take advantage of opportunities if they arise. Pozzato won the Memorial Cimurri after a strong (maybe too strong?) ride in Mendrisio, but his season’s missed the big win he looked certain to take when it began. Paris-Tours would be a terrific way to end on a high note. And don’t forget, Danilo Napolitano can hold his own in a sprint; he deserves mention should things finish gruppo compatto in Tours.
Another Italian, Lampre's Alessandro Ballan, comes to Paris-Tours also hoping to make-up for a season that fell short of expectations. He has the team and the form to take a win in his second-favorite race that begins in "Paris". If he emerges victorious here, and Damiano Cunego can do his part in Lombardy next week, it will mean a terrific winter for Saronni and his boys.
Rabobank’s another team with several aces up their sleeves: Juan Antonio Flecha, Oscar Freire, and Nick Nuyens to name a few. Yes, Freire’s a sprinter, but I think he and his team will be looking to break things apart, with Flecha and Nuyens the primary protagonists and King Oscar ready pounce from a small to mid-size group. A win Sunday would mark a successful fall for a team noticeably absent from the one-day scene this year. Who would have thought the oranje would win the Giro and Ventoux without winning a classic?
And finally, we have Saxo Bank, a team with many riders able to win from a breakway. With Arvesen, Bak, Breschel, Kroon, Ljungqvist, and O’Grady, this team has to like it’s chances. Attack, attack, and attack some more will the name of the game for Riis’ men, while Juan José Haedo sits-in and awaits a possible field sprint. If forced to pick one, I'd say Arvesen’s the best bet to end the season with a win—perhaps vindication for his early exit from the Tour.
You want Wild Cards?
Vacansoleil brings Borut Borzic hoping he can score a big win in an ASO race. With so many deeper teams, he’ll face long odds. But he did beat several of the other favorites in the Vuelta’s first week, and could certainly repeat the feat here. If he can, it will go a long way toward helping the team earn an invitation to next year’s Tour. As for his teammates, Johnny Hoogerland and Bjorn Leukemans will try their hands in late-race breakaways, while at least one of the team’s other riders will likely be on the front when live coverage begins. Aart Vierhouten anyone?
And speaking of wild cards, we have to mention the French. Agritubel will be hoping for a sprint in which Romain Feillu might just be able to squeak through and surprise the rest. The same can be said for Besson Chaussures and Jimmy Casper. In both cases, a win at Paris-Tours would be a tremendous finalé to their continental seasons—and on home turf, no less.
Cofidis puts its chances on the back of the Belorussian, Alexandre Usov, a sprinter who seems to coming into form at just the right time. Francaise des Jeux will be pinning its hopes on the sprinters Sébastien Chavanel and Yauheni Hutarovich, with former winner Frédéric Guesdon and Anthony Geslin hoping for breakaway success. Like Agritubel and Besson Chaussures, a win Sunday for either of these teams would drive the French crazy.
Overall, note that the strongest teams come to the race with several options—all but resisting my attempt to categorize them. In the end, the winner will most likely come from a team with enough depth and talent to keep the rest guessing when decisions need to be made.
Therefore, Columbia-HTC has to be considered the top overall favorite to take the win. Garmin’s plan is too transparent: keep things together for Farrar; as is Silence-Lotto’s: make the race as difficult as possible to set-up Gilbert. In the end, it could be a star from a less-favored squad—Pozatto, Flecha, Arvesen—that takes the title by virtue of being overlooked.
For my money, I’m going with Greipel to cap another fine season with the win Sunday. Since Zabel’s win in 2003, Paris-Tours has alternated having a sprint winner with a breakaway winner. Gilbert got his victory last year following a last gasp effort to stay clear of the peloton--so this year a sprinter shall reign supreme. Here’s my Top-5:
1. Andre Greipel
2. Tyler Farrar
3. Oscar Freire
4. Alexandre Usov
5. Romain Feillu
And what about you? Who are your picks?
Share your comments below--and enjoy the race!