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: Teams and sponsors (part 1)

The 99th edition of the Tour de France, the second of the year’s three Grand Tours – and arguably the world’s biggest and most popular annual sporting event – kicks off on Saturday 30th June in Liege, Belgium with 198 riders representing the 18 WorldTour teams and four wild-card Pro Continental teams set to take to the start line.

Many fans will be familiar with the main riders in the peloton, but have you ever wondered about the mysterious sponsors whose names are plastered all over every available square inch of the riders and their equipment? If so, here’s the first of a two-part overview of the 22 teams, their title sponsors and main protagonists.

All team line-ups are, of course, subject to change in the final few days before the race starts, but are accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing. Part two follows tomorrow.

AG2R La Mondiale

Sponsor: A French life insurance and pension provider.

Overview:  AG2R go into the tour with a multi-pronged attack comprising Nico Roche and Jean-Christophe Peraud, both hoping for a top ten finish, Hubert Dupont  – probably the team’s most consistent rider this season – eyeing a stage win and Tour debutatant Mikael Cherel hoping to break his duck and, along with a number of other riders, to land the polka dot jersey. Whatever happens, expect them to grab plenty of airtime for their sponsor in breakaways with riders such as Maxime Bouet, Christophe Riblon and Blel Kadri, while Lloyd Mondory will be in the mix in the sprints. As in 2011, they’ll also be aiming for a podium placing in the team classification, with a squad the manager claims has 8.5 Frenchmen riding, since Roche is half-French.

Argos-Shimano

Sponsor: An independent Dutch oil company and a Japanese manufacturer of bike parts and accessories.

Overview: The Tour team is going to mount a formidable opposition for the green points jersey with young Marcel Kittel who demonstrated his winning form, and the beating of overall winner Mark Cavendish – in the recent Ster ZLM Toer. He’ll be supported by a mix of experienced riders and another young German Patrick Gretsch, also making his Tour debut. The team will be led by the experienced Koen de Kort but the emphasis on winning sprint stages has prompted one of their promising  – and non-selected – French riders Alexandre Geniez to bolt for the exit.

Astana

Sponsor: A Kazakh business consortium.

Overview: After a slowish start, Astana have had a creditable and successful past couple of months with honours being shared around the team. Their leader for the Tour, the waif-like Janez Braijkovic turned in a good performance at the Dauphiné before winning his home Tour of Slovenia. This will be team leader Alexandre Vinokourov‘s last Tour and we can expect him to launch one of his trademark attacks in search of a final stage win. Both are looking to make amends after they crashed out of last year’s race. Brajkovic – then riding for RadioShack – came down on stage six, injuring his knee and head. Vinokourov fractured his femur after falling on a slippery corner on the descent of the Col du Pas de Peyrol on stage nine. They’re bringing an experienced squad, a number of whom enjoyed success in their recent national chmapionships and only one of whom is a sprinter, Borut Bozic.

BMC

Sponsor: A Swiss bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: BMC will be mounting a stout defence of Cadel Evans‘ yellow jersey, fielding an even stronger team than last year, bolstered by the signings of Tejay Van Garderen, Philippe Gilbert and Steve Cummings. The defending champion has readily admitted that leading rival Bradley Wiggins (Sky) has had the better run of form this season but remains confident of retaining his top spot on the podium. It’s long been ackowledged that the 2012 parcours with its generous mileage in time trials should suit him down to the ground. George Hincapie – another one making a final Tour appearance – will be the team leader, hoping to complete a record-breaking 16th Tour. It’s likely Gilbert will be given the opportunity to win on the early stages suited to his capabilities but with Thor Hushovd riding in Poland, the team don’t have to support the ambitions of a sprinter though, as in last year’s Tour, Gilbert may well pursue the points jersey.

Cofidis – Le Credit en ligne

Sponsor: A French credit company.

Overview: The team’s main man, the baby-faced Estonian Rein Taaramae, has had a chequered start to the season with both injury and illness putting a spoke in his Tour preparation but, having defended his national champion’s jersey in the individual time trial, he would appear to have found his form at just the right time and, if so, could legitimately aim for a place in the top ten. He’ll be ably supported in the medium and high mountains by Remy di Gregorio and David Moncoutie. After the team’s sponsor has publicly expressed dismay at the team’s paucity of results in 2012, expect the team to be active in breakaways with Luis Angel Mate, and the diminutive Samuel Domoulin in the sprint finishes, hoping to secure that all important airtime and maybe even a stage win to placate the man holding the purse-strings.

Europcar

Sponsor: Paris-based hire car company.

Overview: The team are not expecting a repeat performance from Thomas Voeckler in this year’s Tour, largely on account of his recent knee injury which almost precluded him taking part. So pressure will shift to co-leader Pierre Rolland, winner of last year’s epic stage finishing atop Alpe d’Huez. These two will be ably supported like last year by Cyril Gautier, former French time-trial champion Christophe Kern, Yohann Gene and Vincent Jerome. Also selected are Japanese Yukiya Arashiro and the general manager’s neo-pro son, making his rookie appearance, Giovanni Bernaudeau. However, like the other French teams, expect to see their dark green shirts animating the race daily in breakaways.

Euskaltel-Euskadi

Sponsors: A Basque telecoms provider and regional development agency.

Overview: Euskaltel-Euskadi’s leader will be Sammy Sanchez who won a stage in last year’s race at Luz Ardiden and the King of the Mountains jersey which he’ll be looking to defend. He’ll be surrounded by an experienced, strong, all Spanish-Basque team including riders such as Mikel Astarloza, Egoi Martinez and Amets Txurruka – a former Tour de France most aggressive rider. Typically we can expect to see those orange jerseys in the mix every time the road heads skywards and particularly in the Pyrenees where they’ll have their usual fanatical support.

FDJ-BigMat

Sponsors: The French national lottery and a chain of independent builders’ merchants.

Overview: The team have enjoyed their return to the premier division and a very successful start to the season with 11 wins, garnered largely in sprints. They’ll be looking for at least a stage win, probably from their vastly experienced Tour riders Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo, or maybe from last year’s most aggressive rider Jeremy ‘it’s not a break if I’m not in it’ Roy. Promising climber Thibaut Pinot will be making his debut but there’s no place for Arnold Jeannesson, 14th last year, who will miss the 2012 edition due to health issues. Essentially we can expect to see the team mixing it both in the sprints and the medium mountains stages. As is to be expected with all the French squads, they’ll be active in breakaways, looking to grab airtime for their sponsors.

Garmin-Sharp (formerly Garmin-Barracuda)

Sponsors: A US-based multinational manufacturer of GPS systems and a Japanese technology provider.

Overview: Heading back to the race where it shone last year with four stage victories plus a win in the team classification, the team will be led by Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, attempting the Giro-Tour double last achieved in 1998 by Marco Pantani. He’ll have strong support from the experienced duo of Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, who will step up to the plate should he falter. Brummie Dan Martin will be making his Tour debut and he’s another one looking to secure the mountains jersey. Tyler Farrar and Robbie Hunter will be mixing it in the sprints while those time-trialling colossi, Dave Zabriskie and David Millar, will be chasing a result in the individual time trials. The team will be debuting its new jersey at the Tour.

Katusha

Sponsor: A Russian business conglomerate.

Overview: Keen not to repeat last year’s disastrous experiment with an all-Russian squad, the team’s main man Denis Menchov – suspiciously quiet so far this year apart from winning his national time trial championship – will be supported by some Spanish and Italian firepower in the hope of at least gaining a stage win or two. While the team has had a successful start to the year their victories have largely been earned by two men who will be riding the Vuelta rather than the Tour, namely Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno. Menchov generally performs well in the Grand Tours and we don’t expect this one to be an exception. Equally we should expect to see a number of their Russians heading up the road in breakaways and then, in the dying kilometres, time-trialling away from their companions only to be recaptured by the peloton before the finish line.

Lampre-ISD

Sponsors: An Italian sheet steel manufacturer and a Ukrainian steel producer.

Overview: Michele Scarponi, who finished fourth in the recent Giro d’Italia, will lead the team with veteran and in-form Alessandro Petacchi – who recorded three Sagan-esque wins in the recent Bayern-Rundfahrt – hunting for stage wins in what is rumoured to be his last year riding in the professional peloton. Petacchi will have his loyal wing-man Danilo Hondo in attendance as well as Grega Bole. The team, which is aiming for stage wins, has committed to donating part of its Tour prize money – to be matched by an equal donation from the team’s owners –  to charities helping those afflicted in the recent Italian earthquakes. This will no doubt give the boys in red hot pink and blue further motivation to perform.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the remaining eleven teams, from Liquigas-Cannondale to Vacansoleil-DCM.

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Link: Tour de France official website

Happy birthday to Sebastien Turgot

Image courtesy of Europcar

Sebastien Turgot is 28 years old today. Bon anniversaire!

Europcar’s Turgot used every ounce of his track skills  – he was the French national Madison champion in 2008 – to narrowly beat BMC’s Alessandro Ballan in the Roubaix velodrome and take a well-deserved second place in Paris-Roubaix last weekend. Turgot’s the first French rider to make the podium since Frederic Guesdon (FDJ-BigMat) triumphed 15 years ago.

Turgot, who didn’t figure on anyone’s list of favourites (except perhaps his wife’s and mum’s) put in a series of attacks just before what turned out to be Tom Boonen’s race-winning move.

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