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

Leave a Reply