It took a while for the juggernaut to start operating smoothly, but three stage victories, two overall leaders and a race-defining split later it’s fair to say that Sky have already made their mark on the 2012 Tour of Britain. As the race reaches its midway point with Mark Cavendish in the leader’s gold jersey, British riders head the general classification, King of the Mountains (Rapha Condor’s Kristian House) and sprints competitions (Node4-Giordana’s Pete Williams). However, the race for overall victory is just beginning, with the main GC contenders waiting in the wings. Here’s a recap of the four stages so far.
Stage 1: Ipswich to Norfolk Showground, 199.6km
The opening stage of the race was also its longest and flattest, so it came as no surprise to see it won by a British Sky rider. Only it wasn’t Mark Cavendish who claimed the victory and the first gold jersey, but a maiden professional win for 22-year old Luke Rowe. The Welsh neo-pro, a late replacement for Thomas Lovkvist, benefitted from a major crash just before the flamme rouge which unseated Cavendish and about a dozen others.
The day’s action had started from the moment the flag dropped as a break of four, including Kristian House, set off up the road. The former British national champion claimed maximum points over each of the day’s three third-category climbs before the peloton scooped them up with 20km to go. Almost simultaneously on the narrow roads, Node4-Giordana’s Rico Rogers somersaulted spectacularly off the road, bringing down several others, and barely a kilometre later another multi-rider crash occurred at a small bridge.
Sky and Endura kept the pace high in the closing kilometres to avoid any further mishaps on the final run-in. But at 1.2km to go and with Sky in pole position to set up the sprint for him, Cavendish’s wheels went out from underneath him – he claimed later that he had been tagged by an over-exuberant NetApp rider – and down he went, bringing several others with him including Tyler Farrar, who would abandon overnight with a concussion. Another crash on the next corner claimed teammate and Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins, and in the resultant carnage Rowe jumped out of the wheel of Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) in the final 100 metres to finish the day in gold. Endura’s Russell Downing was a distant third.
Stage 2: Nottingham to Knowsley, 177.8km
Another day, another win for a 22-year old. An impressive Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEDGE) executed a fine sprint in Knowsley Safari Park to hold off Mark Cavendish for his second win of the year.
Teammate and fellow Ausseie Jack Bobridge had initiated the day’s six-man break. Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Pablo Urtasun led them over all three of the day’s cat 1 climbs to relieve Kristian House of the mountains classification lead, but the group’s lead of 3½ minutes was never going to be enough to survive the peloton’s charge. Bobridge ploughed on – alongside Node4’s Pete Williams – to hold them off until the 23km mark, freeing up his teammates from pulling duty on the front of the bunch.
Despite a late two-man escape, Sky were in full control at the 2km mark. However, Cavendish found himself with only lead-out man Luke Rowe ahead of him with 600 metres to go on an uphill finish. He appeared to ease up into the final corner to avoid being caught on the front too early, allowing Howard and Boy Van Poppel to slide in ahead of him, but was unable to close the gap on his former HTC-Highroad teammate, who held him off by half a length to leave the world champion shaking his head in frustration. Van Poppel, in third, took over the overall lead.
Stage 3: Jedburgh to Dumfries, 161.4km
Just as he did in last year’s edition, Mark Cavendish won the bunch sprint in Dumfries, ensuring that a damp, grey day had a rainbow (jersey) at the end of it. The world champion exacted revenge for his defeat the previous day by putting at least six lengths into second-placed Leigh Howard.
Cavendish was prominent early in the stage as the peloton was kept together long enough for him to lead out Luke Rowe to take the maximum three-second bonus at the first intermediate sprint after 11km – enough to put him back in the virtual lead.
Thereafter a five-man break formed and produced a lively tussle for the King of the Mountains jersey as the riders tackled two cat 1 climbs followed by a cat 2 within the opening 63km. Kristian House was the main protagonist in the escape group, taking a first and two seconds over the three climbs, with only Raleigh’s Bernard Sulzberger able to deny him a clean sweep. House nevertheless moved to the top of the KoM standings. Former classification leader Pablo Urtasun led the peloton over each climb to sweep up the points for sixth on all three, limiting his deficit at the end of the day to just five points.
Over the flat second half of the stage the peloton quickly reeled in the break. Vacansoleil-DCM stagiare Wesley Kreder was the last surviving escapee, joined by Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Sharp), and the pair held off the Sky-led bunch until the final 2.5km. This time, at the third time of asking, the WorldTour leaders got it right, with first Bradley Wiggins and then Bernhard Eisel perfectly positioning Rowe to lead Cavendish unopposed round the final right-hander with 300 metres to go. He peeled off, and with clear air behind him Cavendish barely had to break sweat to finish it off. Howard had the considerable consolation of claiming the leader’s gold jersey on count-back over Cavendish.
Stage 4: Carlisle to Blackpool, 156km
The finish proved to be little more than a stroll on the promenade in Blackpool as Mark Cavendish claimed back-to-back wins. The world champion left Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp) and Leigh Howard trailing in his wake as he ended the day swapping his rainbow stripes for gold as the new overall leader.
Kristian House again featured in the day’s six-man break as he sought to consolidate his lead in the mountains classification. He duly claimed maximum points over the three climbs to extend his advantage over Pablo Urtasun to 21 points. Although the escape’s advantage approached seven minutes at one point, they were easily hauled in by a peloton led by the combined horsepower of Sky and Endura. In the latter part of the race, Sky upped the pace as the peloton was buffeted by coastal crosswinds, resulting in a permanent split which reduced the race for stage victory – and quite possibly the GC – to around 30 riders, including key favourites such as Howard, Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Sharp), Luke Rowe (Sky) and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Endura).
With the remnants of the break scooped up inside the final 10km, Sky exercised an iron grip over the race all the way into Blackpool. Lead-out man Rowe fired off the front on the final straight and Cavendish opted to drop back – as he had in Knowsley on stage two – to force Howard to chase after Rowe and lead him out. This time there was no mistake: Cav blasted by a fading Howard – who was also passed by Von Hoff – to take an easy victory and the gold jersey which just the previous day he had said he was in no hurry to wear.
With some tough climbs to come over the next few days, Cavendish will be back in his beloved rainbow jersey soon enough, as the likes of Tiernan-Locke and Vanmarcke will seek to stamp their authority on the GC. Already the list of potential winners looks to be a short one, with more than two minutes separating first from 20th ahead of the final four stages.
General classification after stage 4
1. Mark Cavendish (Sky) 17:07:51
2. Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEDGE) +0:06
3. Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) +0:14
4. Luke Rowe (Sky) same time
5. Rony Martias (Saur-Sojasun) +0:20
6. Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp) s/t
7. Russell Downing (Endura) +0:22
8. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Sharp) +0:26
9. Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp) s/t
10. Yanto Barker (UK Youth) +0:27