Tour de France 2022, stage four
Start location: Dunkerque
Finish location: Calais
Start time: 12.15 BST
Finish time (approx): 16.14 BST
Time and distance are the two crucial measurements of the Tour de France. The rider who covers the set distance of the day, or of the whole race, in the shortest time, is the winner and cycling is no more complicated than that.
Time and distance are also central pillars of France’s culture and heritage. In the 1790s, French scientists worked on measurements and calculations, using new technology and deductive reasoning, that would not only work out the size of the world, but also to give it its universal unit of measurement. The French Academy of Sciences worked out the distance between the North Pole and Equator on a straight line that ran through Paris - the Paris Meridian - divided by a million, and the result was: one metre. Bike races tend to be measured in kilometres rather than metres, but the real challenges of a race - the climbs - are always reduced, painfully, to individual vertical metres.
The Paris Meridian was a rival to the Greenwich Meridian to be the world’s prime meridian. It was only in 1884 that the International Meridian Conference decided that Greenwich would henceforth be 0 degrees longitude, but it took the French another 27 years to accept the convention. It ran through Paris, obviously, but it also linked France’s northernmost city, Dunkirk (which is further north than Brighton, Exeter and Plymouth), and one of its most southern, Carcassonne, in a straight line. The riders of the 2022 Tour, who will start in Dunkirk on the morning of stage four and end up in Carcassonne two weeks later for the end of stage 15 and the third rest day, may wish that they could take the direct route, rather than wiggling through the Vosges, Alps and Massif Central en route.
The route of stage four is similarly reluctant to take straight lines. The parcours describes a rough semi-circle south from Dunkirk, pitching the riders into a punchy traverse of the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale, an area of sand dunes and small hills culminating in the steep cliffs of the channel, and then along the coast to Calais. As in the Danish stages, the altitude is never very intimidating - the highest point today is 199m - but the repetition of steep climbs and the narrow roads, familiar terrain from the Four Days of Dunkirk, are what will cause damage.
In fact, they could have given this stage the subtitle of the Four Hills of Dunkirk, because there are six classified climbs en route to the finish*. The climbs are spread evenly through the stage, but there are many more ups and downs, and it is likely to be a stressful day for the GC contenders, who will all be trying to stay as close to the front as possible. This stage is as close as the 2022 race comes in spirit to the chaotic opening four days in Brittany in last year’s event, where the narrow technical roads had a lasting effect on the destiny of the yellow jersey.
The likely outcome is a sprint finish. By the end of the day, the riders will all have covered the same distance; however, some GC riders may be regretting seconds or minutes of lost time.
*This is a cycling in-joke. The Four Days of Dunkirk actually lasts for six days.
Tour de France 2022 stage four map and profile
Tour de France stage four profile
They might only be category four climbs, but the up and down nature of this route will be stressful for riders. The final climb is crested with just over 11km to but the twists and turns of the northern French roads will make for a brutal day.
Tour de France stage four map
Tour de France stage four prediction and contenders
There's potential for sprinters to grab a win on stage four but they'll have to be super attentive and may not be able to rely on the strength of their team to get them through. The course lends itself to attacks and so we could see the Classics riders getting an opportunity at a stage victory if they can whittle down the size of the peloton.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), after his three second places in a row, will be favourite to finally get a stage win here. The current yellow jersey has the Classics credentials to thrive here and the final sprint to beat even the pure sprinters should they survive to the final straight. He may see his chances hampered if he has to work for his GC leaders however.
One man who won't be hamstrung by GC ambitions is Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who, if given the freedom to attack, could thrive on a course like this and win from a small group. His team still have sprinter Jasper Philipsen though who will fancy his chances should it come down to a bunch sprint.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) has been in strong form in the opening three days and will be a strong contender, as will his team-mate Jasper Stuyven, giving their team two options on this terrain.
Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) has the history to go well here and has been up in the top-10 of the sprints so far, but he is still an outside shot considering his form is still not quite back to his best.
Stage three winner Dylan Groenewegen may struggle here with sharp inclines, so Michael Matthews is the best bet for BikeExchange-Jayco if he makes it into a small bunch.
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl will fancy their chances on this stage as well and may look to their Classics stars Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal to deliver their third stage win if Fabio Jakobsen fails to make it across the technical, up and down, course.
Rouleur predicts: Wout van Aert to win stage four and retain yellow