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.
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.
The riders of the 2013 Tour de France, having completed seven stages already would probably disagree, but this years race starts in earnest tomorrow as the Tour enters the Pyrenees for two days of climbing. Saturday sees the first summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines and will be followed by four first category climbs on Sunday. By Monday and the first rest day we will have our initial indications of who will end up in the Maillot Jaune in two weeks on the streets of Paris. Week one has pretty much centred on the points classification battle with all of the key figures, with the exception of Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, winning a stage ahead of Friday’s rolling stage to Albi.
Like many great plans the decision to forgo a prologue and open the 100th Tour with a sprint stage on the races first visit to Corsica didn’t quite pan out as expected. Tour Director Christian Prudhomme had made it pretty obvious that he favoured Mark Cavendish to take the first stage and with it the chance to wear yellow for the first time in his career. Argos Shimano with their sprint double team of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb ignored the script and it was Kittel who took the win and the honour of wearing the leaders jersey for stage 2. It later emerged that Cavendish had been suffering from a virus. He seemed philosophical about missing out on yellow, but such is the stature of the new British champion it’s entirely possible that parcours could be ‘tailored’ to allow him another crack at yellow in future Tours.
With the next two stages in Corsica taking in some significant climbs Kittel was never likely to retain the yellow jersey, such is his inability to climb much more than a gentle slope. Either stage offered the chance of a bunch sprint, but almost equally there were opportunities for a breakaway and it was once such move that prevailed by a single second at the line in stage 2. Jan Bakelants of Radioshack all but guaranteed his future employment with the new Trek team that will emerge from the Radioshack ashes in 2014 with the win that also catapulted him into the overall lead. One of riders a second back on Sunday was Sagan and he was pipped again on stage 3 by a rider with form at ‘stealing’ last minute (read: last second) victories; Orica Green Edge’s Simon Gerrans. The Australian rider had controversially snatched the win at Milan San Remo in 2012 by sneaking around Fabian Cancellara’s wheel at the line. His timing was spot on again and Sagan had to console himself with his haul of green jersey points.
The Tour was back on the mainland for Tuesday’s Team Time Trial in Nice. It’s fair to say that most eyes weren’t on Orica Green Edge ahead of the stage. Garmin, who had won the TTT when it last featured had David Millar one second from yellow and were shackled with the favourite’s label by the lazier commentators. Crucially Garmin have a different make up this year and look more likely to take stage wins, rather than feature high on the GC. It’s unlikely that the team would have expected Millar to be the leader in any case and the circumstances they found themselves in for the test were probably a happy coincidence rather than a grand plan. Omega Pharma, with Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel in the squad held the lead for considerable time on the day, with Sky the strongest of the GC teams. Orica were late off the ramp, but rode strongly to not only win the stage, but put Gerrans into yellow following his stage win the previous day.
Mark Cavendish’s (legal) pharmaceuticals had worked their magic by stage 5, although the difference was mostly his Omega Pharma sprint train who dominated the last few kilometres into Marseilles. All of the early season niggles about the lead out have now disappeared and with a further sprint stage due on Thursday in Montpellier a consecutive win could have been on the cards. Week one of the Tour de France will rarely follow such a conventional script and a late fall left Cavendish somewhat frayed of jersey and displaying a few cuts and bruises. He got himself back to the front for the bunch sprint, but it was Lotto Belisol who were firing on all cylinders after their previous day misfire. Andre Greipel took a relatively easy win. Gerran’s surrendered the yellow jersey, but Orica were able to celebrate all the same as it was passed to his team mate; Daryl Impey.
Cannondale ended the first week with a plan; deliver a stage win for Peter Sagan. Although the team in green had their man (comfortably) in the green jersey at the start of the day, at this point last year Sagan already had three wins to his credit. The team went full gas from the start, riding on the front for more than 100 kilometres. Sagan’s points classification rivals were gapped on the first serious climb of the day and with 40 km’s to go Cavendish, Greipel and co’ gave up on the chase back to the peloton. The only fly in the ointment was surprise of the week Bakelants who stayed away with a couple of others until the stage reached the outskirts of Albi. The fact that Cannodale, a man down since Ted King’s enforced withdrawl after the TTT, could still find riders to lead Sagan out summed up just how much his teammates buried themselves today. It would have been heartbreaking if Sagan had been pipped again, but as the first week came to an end he prevailed. It leaves him with an almost 100 point advantage of Greipel in the race to the green jersey, with Cavendish in third. There was always a possibility that the green jersey could get wrapped up early in the Tour and we could see Cavendish ceding the points contest and ‘putting it all on black’ for the final stage in Paris in two weeks.
Sky have three riders in the top 10 on GC as the race enters the Pyrenees tomorrow. Edvald Boasson Hagen has a slight advantage over Chris Froome and Richie Porte based on some well freelanced sprint efforts this week but he and the team will know that its Sky’s team leader who is expected to enjoy the limelight tomorrow. The way the week has panned out has been a bit of dream come true for Sky. The team, with one exception, have managed to avoid injury and have been able to quietly go about their business while teams like Radioshack and Orica have enjoyed their time in the sun. Froome’s GC rivals have been similarly unscathed and the question for the weekend is how the other teams will counter the Sky metronome on the climbs. In fairness to Sky, taking over the lead so soon last year was not part of their strategy, but this didn’t stop criticism of the tactic and claims that it led to a boring race (unless you were British). Their rivals have had twelve months to decide how to combat the Sky train and tomorrow will be the first look at what this counter insurgency entails. Froome will want to be in yellow by the time the race gets to the TT at Mont St Michel next week, where he would expect to consolidate any lead. It’s still too early to say who will launch a challenge, but lurking in the top ten is Garmin’s Dan Martin. If he’s not quite a rival for Froome over three weeks, he could upset the race with a stage win this weekend.