So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Tour de France 2015

Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – in yellow after stage 3

My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.

The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind  did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.

All that was left was for Mark Cavendish to capitalise on the absence of Alexander Kristoff (another rider caught in the ‘wrong’ group) and the rider whose only appearance on this years race will be in the ad breaks saying something unconvincing about shampoo; Marcel Kittel. Watching ‘live’ it did look as if Etixx were riding two races with Cavendish and right hand man Mark Renshaw on one side of the road and the remaining Etixx riders trying to keep the pace high to force a change in the GC in favour of Tony Martin. It was typical of Etixx that a two-fold defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by Cavendish’s sprint fading (handing the win to Andre Greipel) and the Manxman sitting up as he approached the line handing the third place bonus seconds (and the yellow jersey by a single second over Tony Martin) to Fabian Cancellara. Upshot; another Etixx post mortem and and contract negotiations will be a little bit harder for Cav’s agent, albeit temporarily.

I was tempted to not bother with yesterday’s stage as you can normally watch the final few km of Fleche Wallone and get the whole story of the race in the ascent of the Mur de Huy (another reason for my pre race ‘prediction’ that there would be nothing of note happening before stage 4). I was wrong about that too; although sadly this was due to a high speed crash on the run in to the first categorised climb. A touch of wheels brought down FDJ rider William Bonnet and caused a bigger coming together of riders who were trying to avoid the stricken rider. Race leader Fabian Cancellara took to the grass and missed the impact only to hit a rut and somersault off the bike. He rejoined but a post stage scan revealed a repeat of the injury he suffered earlier this year in E3. He abandoned the semi-classic there and then but yesterday he showed enormous respect for the maillot jaune by finishing the stage.

There were a number of abandons in the immediate aftermath of the crash including Simon Gerrans, who is just having a horrible season in 2015. Orica lost Daryl Impey in the same crash and it’s possible that Michael Matthews could be a non-starter today. The crash was (arguably) caused by the peloton racing for position ahead of the climb and amid the confusion that followed there was another serious crash that led to the stage being stopped temporarily. For the GC teams at the head of the race this decision by the organisers caused consternation initially; perhaps at the idea that the hold up was to allow Cancellara in yellow to rejoin. The post race reason given by ASO; that the medical team was completely engaged with dealing with both crashes seems reasonable enough. The peloton enforced their own neutralisation when they didn’t immediately resume racing after the re-start.

And so to the Mur. After the normal jockeying for position in the run in to the climb it was Joaquim Rodriguez and Chris Froome who emerged at the head of things. After a typically less than stellar TT and missing the jump into the lead group on stage 2 Purito was non-threatening enough to the GC favourites to be allowed to go clear on the Mur. Froome put in one of his ugly looking attacks leaving Alberto Contador unable to follow and at one point looking like he might overhaul Rodriguez for the stage win. With time bonuses available on the line Tony Martin (who had a much harder job hauling himself over the 25% ramps of the Mur) missed out on yellow again to Froome.

It’s hard to know if taking the jersey this early in the race is part of Sky’s race strategy; it didn’t do Nibali any harm last year after all. It’s entirely possible that Sky could protect the lead that Froome has built so far into the mountains and then control the race to prevent Contador and co from taking time back. It should make for interesting racing if things turn out that way as I suspect if things stay as they are that Sky will be attacked from all sides by Froome’s rivals.

Ahead of that we have the small matter of stage 4 and cobbles. Well it isn’t raining this year so I will curse myself again and suggest that what’s gone beforehand will result in no change at the top of the GC. The classics specialists will have their own race and I think that Sky will be happy just to get Froome home in one piece. With his inability to break the habit of glancing at his power output every other second protecting Froome in the peloton is akin to herding cats. He bumped in to another rider yesterday and was lucky to stay upright. It’s far less of an issue in the mountains but you could sense the frustration of Geraint Thomas yesterday as he struggled to keep his team leader at the head of things yesterday like a school teacher trying to shepherd a bored pupil on a trip to a museum. We’ll see how wrong I am about stage 4 and the rest of the opening week in my next post!

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