Tour de France: Stage 2 review

Stage 2: Vise to Tournai, 207.5km

Rumours of Mark Cavendish‘s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even without a lead-out train, on a hotly contested and technical finish, the Manx Missile took his 21st Tour stage victory in Tournai.

After Anthony Roux (FDJ-BigMat), the break’s last survivor, had been swept up with 14km remaining, an almighty battle for control ensued as one team after another rotated off the front ahead of a technical last 5km. The Lotto-Belisol train led under the flamme rouge, after mercilessly cutting off Orica-GreenEDGE’s bid to sneak up the inside.

Cavendish had started the final kilometre down in about 20th, but cleverly edged himself up onto Andre Greipel’s wheel. The German opened up the sprint with 200m to go, but Cav edged past to take victory by half a wheel. GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss was third, while sixth was enough to give Peter Sagan the green jersey lead. There was no change at the top of the GC.

Earlier Roux had been joined by Christophe Kern (Europcar) and Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank). The latter duly took the single point on offer to consolidate his King of the Mountains lead. The trio were easily hauled in, however, with the only real excitement being the intermediate sprint, where Goss held off Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and Cavendish in a third-gear dress rehearsal for the finale.

VeloVoices rider of the day

As an unabashed Mark Cavendish fan, he’s an easy call as my rider of the day. This has not been the easiest of seasons for the reigning world champion, as he has bedded into a new team, Sky, which is not automatically built around him. His form has also been less prolific than we have become accustomed to, with just seven wins before today.

Cavendish proved he can win without any assistance (image by Panache)

He has reportedly lost 4kg (9lb) since the Giro to help prepare for the forthcoming Olympic road race, which has led to much theorising that he has traded off top-end speed for climbing ability. Such fears seemed to be borne out by indifferent performances in the intermediate sprints both yesterday and today.

But here’s the thing. Cav is at his best (a) when he is written off and (b) in the big races. After a quiet early season, he claimed three stages at the Giro. And when the opportunity arose this afternoon, he put the lie to the naysayers who claimed he could not win without a lead-out train. His top-end acceleration may be slightly off his best, but he still remains the man to beat when the road is flat.

He was understandably ecstatic to have won a stage in which he essentially had to fend for himself, saying:

It proves why I have this [rainbow] jersey. It proves why I’m world champion.


Cyclists are hard men. Despite premature reports that he had abandoned with a broken collarbone, OPQS’ Tony Martin started the stage with his left wrist in a cast after breaking a scaphoid. He finished too, albeit over four minutes down, and hopes to be able to compete in the stage nine ITT, after which he will almost certainly withdraw. Most combative rider Roux also raced with an injured left wrist, sustained yesterday.

Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel had been among the favourites for this stage but dropped back with stomach problems to finish 6½ minutes adrift. The team regrouped and helped Tom Veelers claim fourth spot. Impressive stuff from the wild-card outfit.

Today’s route took the peloton through a town called Silly, 43km from the finish. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is.

Finally, the day after a photo-seeking spectator caused a major crash in the peloton, Matt Goss was one of a number of riders to tweet that road furniture wasn’t the only thing getting in the riders’ way today:

Tactical analysis

A brisk south-westerly headwind made the breakaway’s task a thankless and futile one – not that the sprinters’ teams were ever going to be denied their first opportunity at a bunch finish. As predicted, the closing 14km after Roux had finally been dispensed with was a brutal battle for supremacy as team after team surged to the front, only to be overhauled the moment they allowed the pace to dip by a fraction. 

Why the testosterone overload? The first sprint of the Tour is all about establishing a pecking order for ‘right of way’ in the hurly-burly of subsequent stages. And that tension was heightened by the difficult layout of the final 5km: three roundabouts, a right-left combination (the first half of which bottlenecked nastily) and a long left-hander leading on to the final 700-metre straight. Crashes are common on technical finishes like this, especially so early in the Tour. Consequently everyone wants to be in the front. Not everyone can.

For individual riders, it’s all about position. With the Lotto-Belisol train imposing themselves in the final kilometre, Andre Greipel had an armchair ride to the finish behind three teammates. Behind him, however, it was carnage, and it was between the 1km mark and about 400 metres where the cool-headed Cavendish really won the stage. Passing under the flamme rouge in about 20th place and about ten bike lengths back, he astutely jumped onto the wheel of Oscar Freire, then switched wheels at least twice more before finally latching on to Greipel. It was instinctive sprinting of the highest order, reminiscent of the now-retired Robbie McEwen, and it meant that Cavendish didn’t need a train of his own – he simply created his own by following the right rival at the right time. Of his 21 Tour victories, this might just have been his greatest: not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Tour de France official website

Tour de France: 10 things we learned from the opening weekend

Two stages down, 19 to go. We’re now a little over 200km into this year’s Tour de France – with just under 3,300 still to go – and we’ve had some tantalising hints as to who is and isn’t in form, and to the tactical priorities of some of the riders and teams.

So here are ten little insights that we at VeloVoices have picked out from the first two days of racing.

1. Frank Schleck still can’t time trial. This is hardly news, but it’s worth repeating. On the one hand, he only lost 31 seconds to Bradley Wiggins – and 21 to Cadel Evans – which could be easily regained in the mountains. On the other hand, form in the prologue is usually faithfully repeated in the longer time trials. This suggests he can expect to lose five minutes or more over the two remaining races against the clock. 

So unless he has already conceded he cannot win this Tour, he will probably have to take at least this much out of both Evans and Wiggins (and probably Denis Menchov) in the mountains. Never going to happen – he might scupper one of his rivals, but not all of them. Barring withdrawals, he’s realistically racing for third – as we always suspected he might be – and personally I remain unconvinced he will even finish that high. If we don’t see a big attack from Frank on the initial mountain stages, it will confirm a lack of form/ambition.

Cancellara in the first yellow jersey of 2012. Quelle surprise. Not (image courtesy of RadioShack-Nissan)

2. There is no such thing as a sure bet – unless it’s a prologue. Whenever the Tour kicks off with a prologue or short time trial, bet the house on Fabian Cancellara to win. He has contested five such stages during his Tour career – and won them all – 2004, 2007 in London, 2009, 2010 and 2012 – to take the first yellow jersey of the race.

As if to underline that he is back to 100% after his Tour of Flanders collarbone injury, his burst off the front at the end of yesterday’s stage and his ability to hold off Edvald Boasson Hagen for second despite being forced to lead out looked very much like the Cancellara of old. Spartacus is back.

3. Peter Sagan is the most versatile sprinter in the peloton. The ‘Slovakian Cannibal’ was the pre-race odds-on favourite (10/11) for the green jersey, despite this being his Tour debut. His versatility is incredible. He has the speed to win flat stages outright, the strength to win hilly Classics-style finishes like yesterday’s and the coolness to make good tactical decisions. He knew Cancellara had to keep pushing yesterday, with the aim of adding time to his overall lead. Despite the Swiss’ gesticulations, there was never any need to overtake him.

He may not dominate the flat finishes in the way Mark Cavendish has done in recent years, but he will more than hold his own and he will pick up points where few other sprinters can – as he did yesterday – in the style of Erik Zabel. Despite this being the strongest sprint field of recent years, he will win at least one more stage during this race, possibly more. It’s easy to forget he’s still only 22 – indeed yesterday he became the first rider born in the 1990s to win a Tour stage.

4. Mark Cavendish has lost more than just weight. The ‘Manx Missile’ has lost 4kg (9lb) since the Giro. That is an impressive number and it really shows. A rider who has often been the butt of jokes for his physique is looking positively skinny at the Tour.

But he also looks to have lost some of his explosive jump. It wasn’t there at the recent Ster ZLM Toer. And it wasn’t there at yesterday’s intermediate sprint, where he lacked the acceleration to close down Matt Goss. We will probably get another indication of where he stands versus the other sprinters this afternoon in Tournai (although, given the narrowness of the finishing straight, we are just as likely to see a mass pile-up).

5. Marcel Kittel is not focussing on the green jersey. This should come as little surprise, but it was confirmed when Kittel did not bother to contest yesterday’s intermediate sprint. The young German is a prolific winner in the mould of compatriot Andre Greipel, a pure sprinter who goes backwards as soon as the road goes uphill. He cannot challenge on hilly finishes the way Sagan can, and his stated pre-Tour objective was to target stage wins.

Kittel is certainly fast enough to win at least one flat stage. Argos-Shimano are fully focussed behind him, and they will certainly target the clutch of sprint stages in the first week. Indeed it would not be a major surprise to see Kittel abandon by the first rest day, given the limited opportunities for a win between the Alps and Pyrenees.

The legs may be ageing, but the engine remains powerful (image courtesy of RadioShack-Nissan)

6. Life didn’t end at 40 for Jens Voigt. He may turn 41 in a couple of months’ time, but Jens Voigt is still capable of getting on the front of the peloton for kilometre after kilometre and putting everyone into a whole world of hurt. In the midst of the God-forsaken mess that is RadioShack-Nissan [RadioSlack? – Ed], he and Cancellara remain shining beacons of light.

7. The wild-card teams will continue to animate the breakaways. As is usual at the Tour, the wild-card teams were prominent in yesterday’s breakaway, providing three of the six riders. Only Argos-Shimano – whose effort is focussed behind Kittel – did not put a man in the escape.

However, Cofidis, Saur-Sojasun and Europcar have less restrictive race agendas – getting their sponsor’s names several hours in front of the TV cameras is top of  their priority list, at least for the first ten days or so. (The same goes for the Contador-less Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, who have little chance of either a high GC finish or a stage win, and will target breakaways and the polka dot jersey.) Argos-Shimano may join them in the breaks too once Kittel falls away from contention for sprint wins. We will get to know riders from these smaller Pro-Continental squads a lot better over these next few weeks.

8. Idiocy is universal. There will always be one idiot who thinks that standing three metres into the road to take a photo as the peloton bears down on him at close to full speed is a good idea. It never is. I have zero sympathy for any spectator who is hurt in this fashion – sadly, it is the riders who typically suffer the most as the innocent victims of such crass stupidity.

9. Watch out for the invisible man. He may revel in his anonymity, and he has been deafeningly quiet all season so far, but watch out for the invisible man: Denis Menchov. He’s been quiet all season, but he has won the Giro and Vuelta a combined three times, has three previous top-five finishes at the Tour and looks to be in excellent form. He’s a strong bet for a podium finish, at least. Just don’t expect him to attack with panache at any point in the race – it’s just not his style.

10. The riders – not the parcours – make the race. Yesterday’s stage looked fairly innocuous, with five fourth category climbs – even if the finish was at the summit of the last one. But a combination of nerves, tricky crosswinds and a furious pace in the last 30km meant that virtually all the key GC contenders were left to fend for themselves for the majority of the final climb. It shouldn’t happen on this sort of profile, but it did. This – and a subtle course design intended to promote attacking racing – bodes well for fans for the next three weeks. So far, so good.

And finally, one thing we didn’t learn:

We still have no idea who’s going to win the race. But it is already shaping up to be the exciting affair we all hoped for.

VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Tour de France official website

Tour de France preview: Stage 2

Stage 2: Vise to Tournai, 207.5km, flat

This flat stage through the Belgian countryside should see the first bunch sprint of the Tour. With the lead-out trains doing their stuff, the other riders can start to spin out their nerves and settle themselves in for three weeks of racing. The biggest danger to the GC contenders today will be those pesky first-week crashes – last year, Alberto Contador crashed or was caught behind crashes four times in the first week, and yesterday saw two sizeable incidents in the final 25km.

The opening sprint of the Tour is always a nervy affair. The pecking order has yet to be established, meaning all the sprinters’ teams will be jostling for supremacy in the final 10-15km. And the sprinters themselves are all understandably eager to settle the nerves with a good result. Mark Cavendish will want to take his first Tour stage in the rainbow jersey as soon as possible, while Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE), Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and, of course, yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan will want to be the one giving the victory salute today.

The only real difficulty for the sprinters is likely to come inside the final kilometre. With the road rising slightly after the flamme rouge, teams will need to ensure their lead-out men do not burn out too early, leaving their sprinters exposed too soon. Other than that, this is as routine as a sprint stage gets.

Cycling the Alps’ interactive videos of the route can be found here.

Link: Official website