Start location: Dax
Finish location: Nogaro
Start time: 13:10 CEST
Finish time (approx): 17:12 CEST
The bunch sprint finishes during the opening week of the Tour de France are among the most tense and dangerous races on the calendar. With so many riders in the peloton desperate to stay as close to the front as possible, from sprinters and their lead-out men making sure they’re well positioned for the finale, to GC contenders being guided by their domestiques not wanting to lose time in the event of a split, there’s a hectic jostling for what is a finite amount of space, and high-speed crashes are a common occurrence.
In an eerie parallel of the inherent risks of today’s flat sprinters’ stage, other sports particularly notorious for being dangerous are the focus of both the start and finish towns of stage four. The riders set out from Dax, a spa town in Landes, Nouvelle-Aquitaine that is known for its bullring. Built in 1913 with an Andalusian-style exterior, each August it hosts a series of bullfights as part of the town’s annual Fêtes de Dax celebration — a sport which, though safer for matadors these days, is still almost always fatal for the bull.
Then, having travelled eastwards out of Nouvelle-Aquitaine and into Occitanie, the riders will arrive at Nogaro for a finish on the Paul Armagnac motor circuit. This is the oldest purpose-built race circuit in France, and was constructed in 1960 specifically to make motor racing safer as a response to concerns about the safety of racing on the street. But the sport continued to suffer many fatalities, and the racer the area is named after, Paul Armagnac, himself perished a few years after its opening while racing on the track in Montlhéry.
Stage four profile sourced via ASO
When it comes to bike racing, stage finishes on motor race circuits are about as safe as bunch sprints can get. The extra space provided by the wide-open roads allow plenty of room for riders to try to move up the peloton without getting in each other's way, and so the carriage wrought by a touch of wheels or being squeezed into tight barriers that affect so many sprint finishes are less likely to occur here.
Even though there are a few undulating roads on the way, and a category four Côte de Dému 27km from the finish, a bunch sprint seems a sure bet for stage four's outcome. Considering that the race will already enter the Pyrenees on stage five, the sprinters' teams will kick themselves if they miss out on this opportunity by complacently allowing a break to go clear.
The first full stage in France is a day for the fastmen of the peloton. With fewer climbs to contend with compared to stage three, we can expect the pure sprinters to contest a bunch finish here. There’s only one categorised climb they'll need to conquer and it's not as punishing as the ones they have already faced in the previous three stages in the Basque Country.
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) is undoubtedly a favourite for stage four after winning stage three in such great form. He’s determined to secure stage wins, along with his teammate Mathieu van der Poel, who could also excel in a stage like this if he isn’t providing a crucial lead-out for Philipsen. However, the Alpecin-Deceuninck duo will face tough competition from other sprinters who are eager to claim a stage victory before gruelling days in the Pyrenees.
Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal-Quick-Step) is indeed one of those riders to watch. As the European champion, he has displayed great strength this season, having recently won two stages in the Baloise Belgium Tour, where he was pitted against Philipsen, Van der Poel, and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Dtsny). Ewan came third in the final sprint on stage three, so will be looking to better this on stage four. So will Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious), who came second ahead of Ewan.
Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco-Alula) is another fast finisher with previous Tour success, but he lacks the strong team support some of the other sprinters enjoy. The same can be said for Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan), who is chasing his 35th Tour stage win. Both are strong riders who have the experience and knowledge to get themselves in the right place, but with other teams boasting such strong support, it’ll be interesting to see how these two fare in the final sprint.
Lidl-Trek’s Mads Pedersen is an explosive rider and has been successful against some of the best sprinters in the peloton so far this season and could win a stage like this if conditions go his way. Additionally, Wout van Aert could be a contender for a sprint finish, with Jumbo-Visma teammate Christophe Laporte providing a lead-out.
Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) might not be considered one of the top favourites among the sensational sprinters at this year’s Tour, but he has the advantage of having teammate Danny van Poppel to assist him in positioning himself well for the final sprint. Meeus, who has yet to secure a WorldTour win, came seventh on stage three, so is showcasing promising signs that he is edging closer to a victory. A first pro win in the Tour de France would be a remarkable achievement for the 25-year-old.
We think Fabio Jakobsen will take stage four after narrowly missing out on the podium on stage three.
Cover photo by James Startt