This year’s mountainous Tour de France will not be kind to the sprinters in the race.
With a difficult course and a small sprinter peloton, two of the fastest men in the peloton – Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) – are preparing under the weight of expectations.
Ewan, back in the race after storming his first Tour last year with three stage victories, including the so-called “world sprinter championships” on the Champs-Élysées, is feeling the weight of the race. ‘waiting to repeat the feat for a Lotto-Soudal team built around him.
“I’m feeling more pressure than last year at the start of my first Tour de France,” Ewan said at a pre-race press conference on Thursday. “I took it to another level and I’m ready for the challenge on Saturday.”
This year’s Tour de France is more mountainous than ever, with Ewan reckoning that there are “about six chances” for a sprint finish. With teams stacking their rosters with GC runners in recognition of the heavy uphill course and in fear that the rescheduled season will end at any point, the sprint field is scarce.
This year’s race takes place without top-level rapids Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and an arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). Alongside Ewan, Elia Viviani (Cofidis) and Bennett are the only pure-do-it-all sprinters brave enough to face the battery of climbs of ASO route planner Thierry Gouvenou.
“Some sprinters are missing but there are still riders like Elia Viviani, Sam Bennett and André Greipel and as always it will be difficult to win,” said Ewan. “Because of my three wins last year, there are expectations based on that, so I’m feeling more pressure.
Like Ewan, Bennett is preparing before the pressure cooker of the Tour de France. The Irishman doesn’t have the weight of three wins from the previous year on his shoulders, but a stack of expectations from his new Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates.
The 29-year-old may have picked up a handful of victories in both Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, but he has yet to make a Tour stage. Having been omitted from his Bora-Hansgrohe team’s list of previous tournaments as they rally around Peter Sagan, 2020 is Bennett’s first Tour start since 2016, and has the backing of a muscular ‘wolfpack’ behind. him.
“For some reason here, I really feel like my whole career has been an accumulation of this moment and this opportunity, and I feel a lot of pressure to do that,” Bennett said. “It would mean a lot to win a stage here. It would set me up as a pilot and make me a lot more confident.
“I think you just have to accept that there is pressure, it’s part of the moment. I guess when you have that pressure it means it really means something to you so you just have to accept it.
The first opportunity to calm nerves and strike a blow in the sprinters’ showdown comes on Saturday during the first stage of the race around Nice. However, it will prove far from straightforward for the heavyweights of the race, with daring breakaway runners also with an opportunity on the bumpy, looping course through the foothills of the Alps.
“It won’t be a simple sprint,” Ewan said. “But the good thing for us sprinters is that we have a lot of time to get back to the peloton if we get stuck on the last climb.
The hilly course and the narrow and winding roads of Nice will constitute the first prize of the sprint of the Tour and the opportunity to take the yellow jersey of the leader of the race all the more cherished for whoever catches it.
The pressure is on Ewan and Bennett to make every opportunity count, and while Saturday’s stage won’t see a GC battle, expect the race to explode and spark this year’s unprecedented Tour de France.