Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What The Rainbow Misses in Paris-Tours


With a high-speed crash putting an end to Philippe Gilbert's chase of an exclusive Worlds-Lombardia double, Gilbert won't be showing up at the start line of Paris-Tours. It is too bad, because if he wins it he might be the first to ever accomplish the double of Worlds and Paris-Tours.

For a race that is officially considered a “classic”, Paris-Tours is perhaps the least prestigious among them—but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Indeed, that it is absent from his list of 19 monuments and classics wins, Eddy Merckx cannot say that he’s won every classic.



Paris-Tours' first edition in 1896 was central France’s answer to Paris-Roubaix. The first edition followed a fairly flat course to Tours. Quickly it became known as the “Sprinters Classic”. In an effort to make it more interesting, derailleurs were banned for two years (1965 and 1966) and riders were only allowed two gears. Still, not content with what was thought to be a predictable finish, the organizers reversed the route in 1974, starting from the Tours area to somewhere in the vicinity of Paris. In 1988 the organizers decided to again reverse the route to start in Paris and end in Tours.


For a race that many still associate with sprinters, modern times have seen sprinters get punked regularly. In fact, the last 11 years have seen only four sprint finishes: wind direction, and thus luck, plays a huge part. Cases in point: long escape victories by Jacky Durand in 1998, Richard Virenque in 2001, and Frederic Guesdon in 2006. Philippe Gilbert’s wins in 2008 and 2009 are due to his uncanny sense of timing. In 2009 he even out-sprinted sprinters Tom Boonen and Borut Bozic from a 3-man break. Last year Gilbert's BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet beat breakaway companion Marco Marcato just as the field nearly caught them.

If anything else, Paris-Tours is hard to predict as the right combination of atmospheric perturbations (will it rain? will there be tailwind? will wind direction change?), mood in the peloton (hasn't it been a long season? are any teams desperate to make a showing?), and luck (crashes? inter-squad rivalry?) can help a long break may make it all the way to the line.

With 2-time champion Philippe Gilbert recently crowned world champion, we salivate at the possibility of a win by the Rainbow Jersey - something never done before. If he succeeds in Lombardia, he'll join an elite club that counts Alfredo Binda, Giuseppe Sarroni, Franceso Moser, and Paolo Bettini. If he were to win in Paris-Tours, he would be the first to accomplish the double. (Take THAT, Eddy Merckx!) Too bad his team already declared that Lombardia was his last race for the season.

So how will the race play out? Here are a few possibilities.

1.  The not-so-suicidal break succeeds

With all the volatile factors that we noted above, a suicidal break may succeed, often in spite of itself. Remember Richard Virenque’s solo win in 2001? He was just coming back from suspension, and arguably was fresher than most. When he went on the attack with compatriot Jacky Durand, himself a solo suicide attack specialist, the peloton thought that they deserved each other. It’s only much later that the peloton regretted the decision to let them both go.

2. The late attack

A slowdown in the final parts of the race may indeed yield a kamikaze win. But just like the suicidal break, the late attack may succeed or fail despite of itself.

3. The big machine

Given Tom Boonen (OmegaPharma-QuickStep)'s exemplary teamwork in support of Philippe Gilbert (BMC), who would complain if he and his team were to gift this to Boonen? We can think of one BMC rider: last year's Greg Van Avermaet. But given how strong Boonen has been, does he need BMC/Gilbert's help? He has a strong team already, with Tony Martin fresh off a worlds win. We think Boonen is likely to earn his first win in Paris-Tours.

4. The lesser sprinter

Is it likely that a lesser sprinter will beat the big name sprinters? We don't think so. If Boonen makes it to the finale, we're quite sure he'll shed his inhibition against field sprints and do everything he can to win. Heck, he might just derby race the entire field, not so different from a late-gasp attack.

What do you think? Who will triumph in Tours this year?

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