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 2)

In advance of this Saturday’s start of the 2012 Tour de France, here’s the second part of VeloVoices’ overview of the 22 teams, their main protagonists and their eclectic mix of title sponsors! Only in cycling …

The final list of participants is subject to change in the last few days before the race, but these are accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing.


Sponsors: An Italian distributor of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: The team will be riding in support of Vincenzo Nibali whose excellent early season form seems to have diminished in recent weeks, probably not helped by the rumours that he’s heading for the exit – and a big pay packet – with either BMC or Astana. The team will have been disappointed with Ivan Basso’s performance in the Giro  – he’ll be plan B in the Tour – and be hoping for better from Nibali on a parcours that seems suited to his attributes as a rider. Fortunately for Nibali, the focus has been very firmly on prolific stage winner Peter Sagan – the Velvet Samurai – with many speculating on what he may, or may not achieve. However, his preparation has been geared towards the Olympic road race and so, after toying with the other sprinters, may not finish the Tour. He’s my tip to take the prologue and first yellow jersey.


Sponsors: The Belgian lottery and a Belgian window and door manufacturer.

Overview: Lotto-Belisol have confirmed that their team will all be riding in support of Tour hopeful Jurgen Van den Broeck, whose hopes of a repeat fourth place ended in a crash last year. He’ll be strongly supported by an experienced team which includes Lars Bak  – looking for a stage win – and Jelle Vanendert – another one chasing the polka dot jersey. This would seem to imply that Andre Greipel will be going it alone in the sprints, which he’s more than capable of doing. Of course most fans are most looking forward to the daily Twitter exchanges between those masters of wit in 140 letters: Kiwi Greg Henderson – making his Tour debut at the age of 35 – and Aussie Adam Hansen.


Sponsor: A Spanish mobile telecoms operator.

Overview: Alejandro Valverde will be playing the leading man at the Tour but he brings with him a strong supporting cast of similarly dimple-chinned riders, including last year’s Vuelta winner, Juan Jose Cobo, Ivan Gutierrez, Ruben Plaza and recent Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa. In addition he has his Russian heavies Vasil Kiryienka and Vladimir Karpets – surely the scariest looking rider ever – who’ll be riding tempo on the front of the peloton kilometre after kilometre. I suspect that, unlike last year, Jose Joaquin Rojas won’t be throwing his hat into the ring in the crowded points jersey competition. Team management believe that despite the time-trials, Valverde can still challenge for a podium place. We think he’d be better off going for the points jersey.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step

Sponsors: A Belgian pharmaceutical company and a Belgian laminate flooring manufacturer.

Overview: OPQS are still the team of the 2012 season and they’re coming to the Tour, for the first time in many a year, with a genuine Tour contender in Levi Leipheimer who demonstrated with his stealthy third place in the Tour de Suisse that he’s recovered from recent injuries and looking forward to jousting on a parcours that suits him. He’ll be supported by Tony Martin, again back from injury and coming into form, ahead of his tilt at the Olympic time trial title – he’ll be looking to shine in all three time trials. Bert Grabsch, a fantastic time trial performer, will be tasked with keeping the squad together on the flat stages. Levi will have further strong support from former Tour stage winner Sylvain Chavanel and Tour of Oman winner Peter Velits and his brother Martin. Not, of course, forgetting another one of Kitty’s chou chous, Dries Devenyns.


Sponsors: A conglomerate which provide chemicals and explosives for the mining industry and a wealthy Australian businessman.

Overview: The team will be hunting stage wins in its debut Tour de France with its team of nine opportunists, although Matt Goss is an obvious focus for sprint stage wins. Supporting Goss in the fast, flat finishes will be Baden Cooke, Brett Lancaster and Daryl Impey, the latter riding his first Tour. On other stages the squad will look to Simon Gerrans – the first Australian to win a stage in all three Grand Tours – Pieter Weening and Volta a Catalunya victor Michael Albasini for stage wins. Road captain will be Stuart O’Grady, who has appeared in every Tour since he made his debut in 1997. He has 13 finishes in 15 starts, two stage wins and nine days in yellow to his name. Please note, the team will be unveiling a new jersey at the start of the Tour.


Sponsor: A Dutch bank.

Overview: Robert Gesink will lead a team loaded with burgeoining talent. He’s addressed two of his weaknesses – descending and time trials – as witnessed in the Dauphiné – and can legitimately be regarded as a podium condender. Gesink will be supported by Bauke Mollema, third-placed in Vuelta a Pais Vasco, and another Tour debutant, Steven KruijswijkLuis Leon Sanchez will be on the hunt for another Tour stage victory. Rabobank will also look to take points in the sprints with Mark Renshaw who finally appears to have made the leap from lead-out man to full-blown number one sprinter. However, looking at the composition of the team it seems as if he’ll be fending for himself a la Greipel.


Sponsors: A US electronics retailer and a Japanese automotive company.

Overview: The team with the highest average age [it would have been even higher without Tony Gallopin – Ed] RadioShack, or RadioShambles as someone called them on Twitter [Tim prefers RadioSlack – Ed], continue their abysmal season. Andy Schleck’s cracked sacrum has left elder brother and Giro abondonee Frank to assume leadership of the Tour team along with stalwarts Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner – the last-minute replacement for Andy. Meanwhile Tour rejects Jakob Fuglsang and Linus Gerdemann are actively seeking new berths for next year. Harmonious it ain’t and therefore not at all conducive to a great Tour performance. We can nonetheless expect Maxime Monfort to ride strongly in support of the leaders and Fabian Cancellara to challenge in the time trials, while Jens Voigt – another rider making his Tour swansong – will regularly put the hurt on the rest of the peloton. At the other end of the age spectrum, young Tony Gallopin makes his Tour debut. Tour veteran and team general manager, Johann Bruyneel has wisely decided to skip this year’s race and inevitable press scrum after being embroiled in a possible doping case with the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA).


Sponsors: Two French companies: one promoting sustainable and durable development, the other a producer of soya-based edible products.

Overview: The team’s hopes will rest once again on the slender shoulders of Jerome Coppel, 14th last year, supported by a mixture of emerging talent and experience in the hopes of securing a top ten GC classification. The time trial-heavy, summit-light parcours should play to Coppel’s strengths and so this isn’t an unreasonable expectation. Brice Feillu, himself a former Tour stage winner, will be lending a hand in the mountains as will Fabrice Jeandesboz. [Surely the rider with the least editor-friendly name in the peloton? – Ed] Team leader will be the uber-experienced Quatre Jours de Dunkerque winner Jimmy Engoulvent while emerging talent Julien Simon will most likely be animating the breakaways in the hope of snatching a stage win.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank

Sponsors: A Danish and a Russian bank.

Overview: Same old, same old for the Contador-less squad, which sits in last place in the WorldTour standings. They enter the Tour with a largely journeyman team which contains neither a recognised GC contender nor a top climber although they do have experienced stage winners with Chris Anker Sorensen, Karsten Kroon and Sergio Paulinho. Indeed, team manager Bjarne Riis has said the squad shouldn’t be underestimated, and will be chasing stage victories and aiming to make an impact on the race with their mix of experience, aggression and different competencies – good, positive spin. [I suppose it beats saying “we’re not very good and we’ll take whatever scraps we can find” – Ed.] Aussie Jonathan Cantwell will be making his Tour debut. The announcement of a new co-sponsor – Tinkoff Bank – on Monday means that there’ll be a change of jersey for the Tour.


Sponsor: A satellite television broadcaster.

Overview: Sky’s Tour focus will be on winning the maillot jaune with man of the moment Bradley Wiggins, who’s the bookie’s hot favourite to dethrone Cadel Evans after his amazing triple of Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné. He’s been looking awesome at 95%, come the Tour he’ll be at 100% and, barring a repeat of last year’s accident, will be the man to beat on a parcours which also plays to his strengths. He’ll be supported – as he was at the Dauphiné – by Chris Froome, Mick Rogers and Richie Porte. The line-up also includes world champion Mark Cavendish – with ‘minder’ Bernhard Eisel – who’ll be defending his green points jersey, but will primarily be chasing stage victories as he prepares for the Olympics. Wiggins could be in yellow after the prologue although it’s unlikely he’d worry about losing it before the week was out. Though he’ll want it back come Paris.


Sponsors: A European organiser of luxury camping holidays and a Belgian farm supply company.

Overview: The brave soldier of last year’s Tour, Johnny ‘barbed wire’ Hoogerland, has announced his intention to go for the King of the Mountains jersey. [There’s going to be one heck of a competition for this jersey – Ed.] As a consequence, we can expect Johnny to be competing with Jeremy Roy (FDJ-BigMat) for the the most kilometres covered in breakaways. Leadership duties will be assumed by the Dutch pair of Tour de Luxembourg runner-up Wout Poels and newly crowned national time trial champion Lieuwe Westra. Neither will be chasing the final podium, however, as the team’s main aim will be to complete its set of stage victories at all three Grand Tours.

Tomorrow we’ll preview the five key stages of this year’s race.

VeloVoices Tour de France previews

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Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Link: Tour de France official website