It may be the rest day for the riders, but we’ve been busy dissecting the first ten-day ‘week’ of the Tour over at the VeloVoices Towers offices. Tim and Jack have each nominated their top two winners and losers from the opening salvos of this year’s race.
Here’s the potted summary of their discussion.
Tim: It says something that a 22-year old debutant was the pre-race odds-on favourite for the green jersey. But Liquigas-Cannondale’s Slovakian Peter Sagan – aka the Velvet Samurai, Fast-vak and, as we like refer to him, SuperSagan – has exceeded even those expectations, winning three stages (one, three and six) with his unique combination of pace and power to take an iron grip over the points classification.
Sagan is a special and versatile talent, of the type that comes along only once every several years. Flat-out sprints, prologues, uphill finishes – he can even get over medium mountains. One day – and I would bank on it being sooner rather than later – he will win multiple Classics in the style of a Boonen, Cancellara or Gilbert. He’s that good.
And he does a neat line in victory celebrations too. Some have chided him for disrespecting his opponents. Personally I think he brings a sense of youthful fun to racing. If others don’t like his finish line antics, then they’ll just have to be better at stopping him.
Jack: I completely agree, Tim. Not only has Sagan shown the world what he had already demonstrated to the cycling fraternity in dominating races on all types of terrain, but also on the celebrations front. “Can’t say I enjoy his victory salutes in the face of his competitors,” wrote Robbie Hunter on Twitter – I wonder if that’s just because of the appalling form of Garmin-Sharp’s sprinter Tyler Farrar!
Jack: Even coming into this race in the form of his life, Bradley Wiggins had his doubters – myself included – about whether he could climb as well as the likes of Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali. Until the race really hits the big climbs – such as the La Toussuire finish on stage 11 – that won’t change, but regardless, Sky now have a brilliant back-up in Chris Froome.
Underneath the PR-polished exterior Dave Brailsford must be jumping for joy knowing that, even if Wiggins cracks, they are still in with a realistic chance of taking the yellow jersey. But Sky must ensure they don’t make the same mistake as they did in last year’s Vuelta. Froome was forced to nurse an ailing Wiggins, sacrificing his own, better chance of winning his first Grand Tour. Should Wiggins struggle again this time, he must allow his teammate to ride on.
Tim: While I’ve been disappointed to see Mark Cavendish cut adrift, I think Sky have got their GC tactics pretty much spot on. They conserved energy for stage seven’s summit finish, where Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mick Rogers and Richie Porte destroyed the peloton. Of course, the big tests are still to come, but Porte is as good a climbing domestique as there is in the peloton and Sky have said they will sacrifice Froome’s third spot if needed – no repeat of the Schlecks’ muddy tactics here! – presumably on the promise that Froome will receive 100% team support at the Vuelta. They won’t make the same mistake twice.
It says much about the impact of Brailsford’s principle of accumulating marginal gains that the team is reaping such rich rewards here, and that the team’s detractors have resorted to slinging baseless doping accusations to explain their improved performance. I suspect any ‘performance enhancement’ is more likely to be the result of a thoroughly professional approach to racing, and not a pharmaceutical one.
Tim: My natural instinct was to put RadioSlack (as I have come to call them) straight into the ‘losers’ pile, given the distinctly mediocre performances of nominal leaders Frank Schleck (17th overall) and Andreas Kloden (15th) and the whole Johan Bruyneel circus sideshow. But here’s the thing. RadioShack-Nissan’s Tour so far reads as follows. One stage win (Fabian Cancellara in the prologue.) Seven days in the yellow jersey (Cancellara). Leading the team classification (although admittedly this means they have to wear those horrible yellow lids). Two of the top seven riders on GC – Haimar Zubeldia (sixth) and Maxime Monfort (seventh) – three of the top 13 (Tony Gallopin is 13th) and five of the top 17. Impressive.
Oh, and plenty of the irrepressible Jens Voigt on the front of the bunch, putting everyone into a whole world of hurt. I can think of several other teams – everyone except Sky and BMC, basically – who would swap their current standings for RadioShack’s in a heartbeat. And all this is being achieved without – or perhaps because of (discuss …) – Andy Schleck‘s absence.
Jack: Seeing RadioShack perform so well has been one of the highlights of the Tour for me, actually performing well as a team without the egos and big-name riders in the race (or at least at the sharp end of it!)
Zubeldia has ridden excellently and is now thrust into a non-domestique role. There is a real chance he will match his best ever Tour de France finish of fifth, at 35 years old.
Jack: Having been labelled as the next big thing to emerge from the British Isles (despite being born 15 miles outside Paris), Nicolas Roche has often failed to match expectations, possibly struggling under the burden of his famous surname. But this year it seems like he is finally living up to the hype.
Currently in 10th place, he is 5:29 behind Wiggins and is riding as the undisputed leader of the AG2R La Mondiale team. The French outfit came into the Tour with a two-pronged attack – with Jean-Christophe Peraud, who finished ninth on his Tour debut, last year riding alongside Roche.
But the 35-year-old Peraud is sitting in a lowly 40th place, and there will now be sole focus on Roche. Hopefully he can continue to impress when the race hits the hors catégorie climbs, and can better his previous best finish of 14th in 2010. Let’s hope the absence of teammate Hubert Dupont – who has withdrawn with a broken wrist and spine – doesn’t hit Roche too hard in the mountains.
Tim: If Roche is to achieve a top ten finish, he will probably have to do so on his own wits without much team support. But just being the undisputed leader will mean a lot to him. AG2R have often hedged their bets in the past, compromising their top riders’ efforts. I can remember an incident a couple of years ago when Nico flatted on a climb when well placed in the GC and John Gadret refused to hand over his bike. That won’t happen now.
FDJ-BigMat, for scoring a stunning breakaway in with the youngest rider in the race, Thibaut Pinot, cheered on by his excitable team boss Marc Madiot. Denis Menchov (Katusha) has quietly crept into the top five without putting a wheel wrong, justifying his nickname of The Silent Assasin. The Portuguese Rui Costa is the highest-placed rider (11th) on a Spanish Movistar team which includes headline names Alejandro Valverde and Vuelta champion Juan Jose Cobo.
Tim: There have been a large number of abandons so far in this Tour – 22 to date (plus one ejection, see below) – and no nation has been hit as badly as Spain, who have suffered eight withdrawals. The two Spanish teams – Euskaltel-Euskadi and Movistar – have lost seven between them. The former is now missing Mikel Astarloza, Amets Txurruka, defending King of the Mountains Samuel Sanchez and Gorka Verdugo, while Movistar have seen J J Rojas, Imanol Erviti and Jose Ivan Gutierrez abandon. Former green jersey and three-time world champion Oscar Freire (Katusha) is the other Spaniard to have departed early.
One has to wonder if the Spanish have done something to offend the French cycling gods. The one upside is that, with so many top Spanish riders’ Tours cut short, the Vuelta a España suddenly became a whole lot more competitive.
Jack: It has been a horrible Tour for the Spaniards, clearly having as much luck as Igor Anton had when wiped out of the 2010 Vuelta while in the lead. It is certainly a sad way for Freire to end his career, as it now seems like his hopes of ending with a win at the London Olympics have been dashed. It is an unceremonious end to a glittering career, with El Gato having ridden in the pro peloton for probably the last time.
Jack: In what it almost certain to be his final Tour de France, Vuelta winner and four-time Tour stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov has been conspicuous by his absence from the front end of proceedings. The 38-year old Kazakh is 54th, over 25 minutes in arrears.
Things go from bad to worse for the Astana team with the story that has today broken, however. Cofidis rider Remy Di Gregorio has been arrested and promptly suspended by his team amidst doping and trafficking allegations. What’s this got to do with Astana? The investigation has reportedly been ongoing for over a year, when the Frenchman was riding with the Astana team.
It is possible that this could have ramifications for the team, who don’t exactly have a squeaky clean record, having left the 2007 Tour after Vinokourov tested positive for homologous blood doping.
Tim: I think that sums it up. There has always been a whiff of controversy about Astana, whether it was the Armstrong/Contador in-fighting of 2009 or this latest in a long line of doping scandals and rumours. The romantic in me wants Vino to depart with one final swashbuckling victory. It’s no more than he deserves – but it’s a lot more than his team does.
Tim: The team may no longer exist, but several of the sprinters nurtured by the HTC-Highroad/Columbia team are present at the Tour. With the exception of Andre Greipel (who has two wins) they’re having a pretty bad time of things.
World champion Mark Cavendish – that’s the guy who has won 20 stages over the past four years – has a single success on stage two to his name and has largely had to fend for himself on flat stages as Sky focus on protecting Wiggins. As a result, he has been caught up in or behind more accidents in this first week than in his previous five Tours combined. Personal bodyguard Bernhard Eisel has also been in the wars.
Orica-GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss has only a second and a third place to his name. Rabobank’s Mark Renshaw has finished no higher than ninth. To be fair, Lotto-Belisol teammates (and roommates) Adam Hansen and Greg Henderson have done well as critical members of Greipel’s dominant lead-out train but the once crushing superiority of the HTC train is now but a distant echo.
Jack: While it is certainly true that individually the HTC sprinters have struggled, I think only Cavendish will be feeling nostalgic about his time with the team. With the likes of Greipel and Goss always playing second fiddle, they now go into every sprint fighting for the win, rather than as a lead-out man. It has made bunch sprints a lot more competitive, and it’s the riders as well as the spectators who will be thankful for that.
Jack: If you think Astana have had it bad, they’ve got nothing on Garmin-Sharp. Jonathan Vaughters’ outfit have suffered rotten luck, losing both GC riders. Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal went home injured along with teammate Tom Danielson, ending any hopes they had at winning the maillot jaune.
Garmin’s next-best climber Dan Martin hasn’t lived up to expectations, and is over half an hour down on Wiggins.
This wouldn’t have been a major problem had Tyler Farrar been firing on all cylinders. But the American sprinter’s woeful form has continued. Farrar now hasn’t won a race for over a year, and what was initially a bad spell has become a major concern. The pressure on him is showing too, as he tried to storm into the Argos-Shimano team bus after stage five, blaming Tom Veelers for his accident.
Tim: As Garmin-Cervelo the team had a spectacular 2011 Tour, dominating the team time trial and delivering stage victories for both Thor Hushovd (twice) and Farrar – on the Fourth of July, no less. Maybe they are still suffering something of a post-Giro hangover, and whatever good fortune they had in May has deserted them in July. They will still look back on this as a good year ultimately, but it’s hard to see what they have left to race for in this Tour. It’s been a miserable first week and it’s going to be a long two weeks ahead.
Frank Schleck, who was all too quick to shy away from the burden of being RadioShack’s team leader – and has so far ridden like anything but a team leader. World time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had mechanical issues in the prologue, broke his wrist on stage one and toughed it out as far as yesterday’s time trial in the hope of a win – and promptly punctured. Reckless spectators willing to risk injury to both themselves and riders by standing in the road, all for the sake of a photo.
VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.