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PARIS, France (AFP) — The last big sprint of the season is expected Sunday on Avenue de Grammont to close out Paris-Tours, the mostly-flat semi-classic coveted not only by John Degenkolb and French champion Nacer Bouhanni, but also by the puncheurs.
In the absence of finishers like Mark Cavendish (Sky) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) becomes the benchmark. Winner of five stages of the Vuelta a España, the German finished fourth in the world championships in Valkenburg, Netherlands, demonstrating his ability to “swallow” the bumps in a one-day race.
“I unwound after the world championships,” said Degenkolb. He relaunched this week with two third places achieved in quick succession in the Memorial Frank Vandenbroucke on Tuesday and Paris-Bourges on Thursday, prior to an end to his season at Paris-Tours, a classic that his predecessor Erik Zabel has won three times.
Third at both Binche-Tournai-Binche (to Adrien Petit) and Paris-Bourges (to Bouhanni), Degenkolb found himself behind a French sprinter. Bouhanni (FDJ-BigMat), one of the revelations of the season, downplayed his performance.
“Second or third, it does not change much,” he said after his sprint at Paris-Bourges. However, if Paris-Tours decides the (unofficial) sprint champion of France, he is expected to aim very high on the Avenue de Grammont.
“The team will work for him,” announced Bouhanni’s FDJ-BigMat squad, which is expected to line up with Mickaël Delage, the usual leadout on the sprint train of Arnaud Démare, who will be absent. Démare, 22, won once and took three second places in the last five days of racing.
Even more so than the small, coastal finish that organizers revamped last year due to the installation of a tram, the weather can significantly influence the race. Depending on the wind, the attackers may have opportunities in this race that initially crosses the region of Beauce before turning towards the Loire Valley.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) exploited the situation last year to take the third win for a Belgian in the past four years at Paris-Tours. Sick earlier this week with a cold, he hopes to have fully recovered to achieve the same double as his compatriot and teammate Philippe Gilbert (2008 and 2009). He has the advantage of Italian Alessandro Ballan at his side, also a contender in the finale.
“We have a really strong team with Alessandro and Greg. And if there is a real sprint, we have Adam (Blythe),” said BMC sporting director Rik Verbrugghe.
Other attackers from the list of 25 teams entered have shown that they still have good legs, despite this being the late part of the season. Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Belgian Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) or Dane Michael Mørkøv (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) are some of the riders feeling the fatigue, but aiming for top spot in the season-closer.