BRUSSELS // Tour de France organisers are hoping today's second stage of this year's race gives fans a taste of the hugely popular Ardennes classics. But for some, the undulating, 201-kilometre ride from Brussels to Spa is perhaps not tough enough to totally rule out the possibility of a bunch sprint. It features a total of six punchy climbs, most of which are in the latter half of the course, meaning the "punchers", like Damiano Cunego and Cadel Evans, and purer climbers like Andy Schleck, should harbour personal ambitions.
Two of those climbs, the Stockeu and the Rosier, are regulars on Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest one-day classic in the world. The final descent towards the line means that attacks on the last two climbs could go all the way, significantly reducing the chances of the stage ending in a bunch sprint. John Lelangue, the BMC team manager, believes that the organisers have taken the soft option by allowing the peloton to attack Stockeu and Rosier by their least difficult approaches.
Still, he has not totally ruled out the fast men of the peloton - traditionally among the worst climbers - clinging on in a bid to snatch one of the few sprint stages available in the first week. "We've reconnoitred a lot of the hardest stages in this first week, but personally I would have preferred stage two to be a little bit more difficult," said Lelangue, whose star rider is Evans, Australia's world champion.
"They've chosen the easiest approaches to both the Stockeu and the Rosier. It's very a fast ride down from the Rosier to the finish, but whether that gives the sprinters a chance to get back to the front in time remains to be seen." Evans, a Tour runner-up in 2007 and 2008, won the Fleche-Wallonne semi-classic earlier this season, a race that ends on the steep pitches of the Mur de Huy; Cunego is a former winner of the nearby Amstel Gold Race.
Evans suffered a minor blow to his hopes after losing one of his BMC teammates on Saturday, when Mathias Frank sustained a thigh injury. Frank's first Tour de France campaign lasted less than 10 minutes, the 23-year-old crashing after his wheel slipped on a white traffic band in the road. "It's impossible for him to bend his knee," Lelangue said of the injury. The Russian duo of Alexander Kolobnev and Sergei Ivanov, of Katusha, should also be in the mix with the Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel likely to be under orders from the bosses of his Belgian Quick Step team to give it his best.
Schleck, however, has more reason than most to challenge for a stage win. Regarded as the main challenger to reigning champion Alberto Contador, he lost nearly a minute to the Spaniard after a disastrous performance in the opening prologue on Saturday. * AFP