From Pau the Pyrenees sit on the horizon like ramparts of a distant fortress, the scene of battles to come. The opening week of the Tour de France has been dramatic and thrilling but in the race for the yellow jersey it’s merely been a qualification event.
The race trekked to Utrecht where Rohan Dennis took yellow only for a day when he missed the split on the road to Zeeland and the rest of his BMC Racing team didn’t wake, confirmation that the team was all in for Tejay van Garderen even if it cost the yellow jersey.
André Greipel has won two stages and had a spell in the green jersey, much to the delight of German TV ratings. Broadcaster ARD is reportedly very satisfied by its return to the race. It’s been a hit for many channels with excellent ratings in France too, presumably helped by the lively and risky route.
“A bicycle race should never be confused with healthy exercise”
– Antoine Blondin, L’Equipe, 1971
Stage 3 saw two huge crashes minutes apart and even a brief neutralisation because the race medics where overwhelmed by the injuries; a video by Orica-Greenedge gave an alternative view of the damage. Crashes seem inevitable and the number of abandons is no higher than normal despite a nervous and tactical first week. The sense of danger was heightened by some high profile abandons but remember this time last year the race had lost Alberto Contador and Chris Froome.
The yellow jersey has resembled the Shirt of Nessus, a poisonous tunic that proves lethal for its wearers. Dennis can count himself lucky but Fabian Cancellara crashed and left the race to end his spell in yellow, ditto Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin’s time in white was over before he could hope to take yellow in Huy. Chris Froome has worn yellow but has been keen to rid himself of it. The paradox is that to win the race you need to take yellow but it’s about timing, if someone else can carry the burden for a few days better to let them.
Etixx-Quickstep have had a volatile week, salvaging the humiliating defeat in Zeeland into stage wins and the yellow jersey. As Patrick Lefevere said he’d rather have highs and lows than a flat week. Highs and lows for Katusha too, Joaquim Rodriguez won in Huy before Luca Paolini left in shame, leaving little more than a trail of lame jokes behind.
A wild time for Ag2r La Mondiale too with Romain Bardet and J-C Péraud on the receiving end all week. They had a puncture for Christophe Riblon after 4km yesterday and the teamed wait for the rouleur otherwise they’d have done quite respectably. Despite losses there are gain thanks to Alexis Vuillermoz’s stage win. Watch them in the mountains where the team classification is a goal, a small deal to most but big for team managers and sponsors.
We’ve seen a stage win for Mark Cavendish, a relief and a useful addition to his CV as his agent tries to land a new contract. It’s quite the saga but don’t forget Cavendish will always find a well-paid role. Europcar soldier on with no news of a replacement sponsor and time is running out. If the Tour is supposed to be a shop window they’ve got “closing down sale” signs, symbolised by Thomas Voeckler’s brief, fruitless counter-attack on the road to Le Havre.
Never introduce a gun into a story if it is not going to be fired wrote Anton Chekhov. What would he have made of this week’s visit to the cobbles? Feared for the danger everyone made it through without misfiring or mishap. It’s the perfect outcome, the big names were tested and thrived rather than being pruned out of contention. Thibaut Pinot was the exception, his electronic derailleur disconnected on the cobbles but so was his head. Vincenzo Nibali floated over the cobbles but a headwind meant he could not escape.
Of the “Big Four” Nibali has to be the loser so far. His Astana team haven’t looked strong and things got off to a bad start thanks to Lars Boom’s cratered cortisol count. Some said Nibali would win the Tour in the first week but he’s ended up with the biggest time loss, losing time in the plains and on the small climbs alike. Hopes of him going full-Lazarus are diminished as La Gazzetta reports his morale is as low as his 13th place on GC which doesn’t bode well for any audacious attacks. As the chart above shows it was Stage 2 and the storm on the way to Rotterdam that ripped up the race more than the Mur de Huy and pavé combined.
Alberto Contador has been there or thereabouts. Look closely and he’s not been brilliant, he tried to follow Chris Froome on the Mur de Huy and lost time but we’ll see how he fares on the longer, steadier climbs compared to the stinging efforts so far. It’s said to be all about the third week for him.
Nairo Quintana missed the split to Zeeland but has tracked Froome the rest of the time. The Pyrenees will finally let us see what he can do. His style is the solid mountain attack, grinding his rivals away pedalstroke by pedalstroke. We knew nothing about his form and a week later we’re no wiser as he rides behind that stoic mask. The Pyrenees can’t come soon enough and, despite the wizened looks, he should emerge with the white jersey if nothing else. Movistar hold some tactical cards that others don’t with the potential for a two-pronged attack thanks to Alejandro Valverde.
For Chris Froome things have gone so well his only problem has been getting rid of the yellow jersey, that intolerable shirt of flame. The three Pyrenean mountain stages are crucial for many, television ratings included. Broadcasters will fear a Team Sky steamroller job with Froome winning tomorrow’s stage to seize control of the race and tame his rivals. Froome is where he needs to be but we’re not at the “anything can happen” phase yet, watch for this phrase as it’s code for “barring a surprise, the race is sewn up”.
4 – 1 + 1: Tejay van Garderen’s had a flawless first week. BMC Racing picked plenty of flatland bodyguards to shepherd the American from Utrecht to Brittany. But as stressful as the opening week has been it’s merely a qualification phase ahead of the mountain stages. Van Garderen has made it to the Pyrenees intact thanks to powerful riding and a muscular team but it’s the coming days that will test him. It’s difficult to see him overhauling Chris Froome in a summit finish scrap yet alone in a long range raid, you sense he’d settle for a podium at Vincenzo Nibali’s expense, playing it steady while others fall away. We’ll see BMC ride to defend his second place, chasing down anything by Quintana or Contador?
The others? Rigoberto Uran sits sixth overall without anyone having seen him, which feels about right. The climbers and overall pretenders are scattered all over the GC, they’ll start moving up the table in terms of rankings as the first week heros cruise the gruppetto, a process of elimination. But who can make up for lost time? Thibaut Pinot seems the best climber but it’s la tête et les jambes, if he’s got the legs – there’s talk of a sore knee – is his head still in it? Those far down the rankings like Wilco Kelderman and Ryder Hesjedal could start tomorrow’s stage before breakfast and still pose no threat. As for riders like, say, Warren Barguil, Romain Bardet, Robert Gesink, Andrew Talansky there’s a top-10 waiting if they play it steady.
Peter Sagan’s in green by just three points. The system may have changed but so did the Slovak, apart from the TT and Huy he’s finished no lower than fourth every day to amass points, he’s been better placed this year than last. Greipel has two stage wins but will need to win in Valence and Paris and harry Sagan all the way too. It’ll be fascinating to see what Tinkoff-Saxo do if Sagan’s grip on green is stronger than Contador’s bid for the overall win, will resources be shifted from one challenge to the other?
Daniel Teklahaimanot’s brought a new story to the polka dot jersey. Nobody wore it until the third stage as the route was so flat. The Eritrean is on four points and tomorrow’s summit finish offers 50 to the winner.
For all the drama of the first week and a route that’s had many contenders nervous since October the main riders are still closely grouped and the contenders for the overall classification are all in the race rather than hospital.
The yellow jersey has changed shoulders four times, will it change again? Chris Froome is in the perfect perfect position already having not only survived a first week where some thought he would implode but he’s come out on top. His rivals, Tejay van Garderen included, will spend their day making plans for the mountains. To attack or follow?