Today at the Tour: The Spring Classics in July

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The Paris-Roubaix champion won, ahead of a recent winner of Brabantse Pijl. Former winners of Liège-Bastogne-Liège finished third, fourth, and sixth, with a Flèche Wallonne winner fifth, and a former Roubaix winner in seventh. The current Milan-San Remo champion finished 10th.

Welcome to the Spring Classics in July.

The west coast of France looked a bit like southern Belgium Wednesday at the Tour de France, where a hilly route along tight, twisting roads from Lorient to Quimper dished up five categorized climbs, countless uncategorized pitches, and a final uphill stretch.

To the surprise of no one, world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) took the victory, just holding off Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) for the second time in four days.

“During the Tour de France everything is different, but the parcours was like an Ardennes classic,” Sagan said. “Up, down, left, right, and narrow roads.”

After his attack at 700 metres to go was reeled in, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) somehow managed to recover and finish third, ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), with Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) fifth, Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) sixth, and race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) seventh. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), winner of Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia, finished 10th.

“We knew today’s stage was billed as a mini version of an Ardennes Classic, so we were up to the challenge and ready to do something,” Gilbert said. “Going into the last climb I was in a good position and I was hoping to surprise with an attack, but it was really difficult with the headwind and two guys proved to be stronger at the end of the day.”

The lumpy stage across narrow backroads was most definitely not a day for pure sprinters, as Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) both came off with nearly 100km remaining, finishing in a group with Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) nearly 20 minutes down. Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) held on longer, but still finished 4:24 down.

Had they not been forced to abandon before the start of Stage 5, we would have likely seen two other classics stars in the top 10 in Quimper. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) was unable to continue due to illness, while Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), winner of Strade Bianche, is nursing a second-degree dislocation of the AC joint in his right shoulder after going down in a pile-up at the end of Stage 4.

Still, it was unlikely anyone was going to beat Sagan in Quimper. The Slovakian star excels on short uphill sprint finishes, and now leads the points jersey competition with 180 points to Gaviria’s 147 points.

“I’ve been a bit lucky today because Sonny Colbrelli was close again,” Sagan said. “I expected some attacks and it happened with Philippe Gilbert. We caught him and it forced Greg Van Avermaet to go too early. In fact, he pulled a good sprint for me, so I have to say a big thanks to Greg. It was a very nice stage, technical, up and down, left and right. I enjoyed it.”

One key difference between racing to win a Spring Classic versus a Grand Tour stage, of course, is familiarity with the route, and Van Avermaet could only acknowledge that he’d mistimed the finale.

“I made some mistakes,” Van Avermaet said. “I reacted to Phil [Gilbert] because he was in the mix of the GC, and when I chased him, he stopped his effort. It was hard for me, I missed those 250 meters full gas and I would have needed them for the finale. I thought the final turn was at 250 metres from the finish line, and it actually it was 360 metres. Those mistakes happen. In the end, it would have been difficult to beat Peter even if I had got that figure right. But this was a super nice stage, a super hard one on very small roads.”

Before the Tour reaches the high mountains, and turns into a battle of of tactical conservation and watts per kilogram, the route first offers up a few stages of unbridled race action where cobblestone and Ardennes classics battle with sprinters and GC contenders. And that’s what’s wonderful about the Tour — it’s the one race on the calendar where all the sport’s best riders are competing, all in top form, across varied terrain.

If you liked what you saw on Wednesday, you’re in luck — there’s more to come. Stage 6 on Thursday finishes atop the 2km Mûr de Bretagne, with an average gradient of 6.9%, which the bunch will climb twice. It’s likely a day for Ardennes Classics riders like Valverde, Alaphilippe, Gilbert, and Martin, but it would be foolish to rule out Sagan, Colbrelli, or Van Avermaet.

“This week we have several nice stages for Classics riders,” Van Avermaet said. “Quick-Step Floors is a very big threat for [Stage 6]. My favorite is Julian Alaphilippe. He might well take the yellow jersey from me.”

And then of course there is Sunday’s stage, with 15 cobblestone sections, finishing just outside the velodrome in Roubaix. The winners of the past five editions of Paris-Roubaix are in this Tour peloton and will either be battling for stage honors (Sagan, Van Avermaet, John Degenkolb, abd Niki Terpstra) or protecting their GC leaders (Mathew Hayman) across what is expected to be a dusty day on the pavé.

Don’t expect rain and mud across the cobbles — the current forecast for Sunday is 29°C (85°F) and sunny.

One other major difference: Paris-Roubaix is generally the end of a difficult race block for classics specialists. This time around, they’ll have a rest day in Annecy before heading straight into the Alps.

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers will be writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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