When it is Alpe d’Huez, you don’t have to wish too hard for something special. Two massive out of category climbs leading up to the most iconic climb in the sport. That is what they served up today, and the riders delivered. A long escapade for Steven Kruijswijk, swept up in the dying hairpins, leading to a second stage win in-a-row for Geraint Thomas, this time in yellow. It also marked the first time a British rider, or indeed the yellow jersey, has won on this famous col.
Greg Van Avermaet has defended yellow with honour. Yesterday, the classics style rider, went on a mountain attack to try and keep it for another twenty-four hours. He was well aware that today, his effort would catch up on him. It did, and with half the short but heavy mountain stage remaining, the question was who would inherit the jersey?
We are three stages in now and each stage has been different than the other. The first was a time-trial that gave us a classification and the chance to look at time gaps. The second stage gave the sprinters a turn to stretch their legs. And the third stage was designed to shake up the sharp end of that classification with a short but steep uphill finish. And while Geraint Thomas may have presented himself as a surprise winner of that time-trial, Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan winning the next two stages, was right on script.
I spent the opening weekend of the Tour out of town. It was the Canada Day 150th anniversary celebrations on the day the Tour started. The celebrations ran through the weekend and into Monday. I was able to watch the Tour, or at least the parts that mattered, and I even clocked up 185km of riding. But I had no time, nor desire, to sit in from of a computer and write about the Tour. Best to let it all play out anyway; let it settle down, bed in, and give me pause for thought before making comment. And so here I am then on Monday evening, looking back at what has been over the opening weekend.
It is hard to imagine that a stage of the Tour that contributes only 0.4% of its total distance, could be any kind of a factor to the greater proceedings. And yet Saturday’s opening time-trial in Düsseldorf, Germany, could prove to be so. The rain fell and played its part in stretching some of the time gaps. It brought back memories of the prologue in 1995 when Chris Boardman, favourite to take the opening yellow jersey, came down hard and had to abandon. The dangers were all too clear on this one and some rode it as such. But it still caught out some. The biggest name of which was Alejandro Valverde. It wasn’t quite the same as Boardman in ’95 in that Valverde wasn’t expected to win today, but it was massive in regards to a contender crashing out so early. And if not a man gunning to win the Tour, then a vital aid in Nairo Quintana’s bid to weaken Chris Froome come the mountains.
Geraint Thomas took a few risks himself, but stayed upright and posted the best time. While his career first Tour stage win and yellow jersey will live long in the memory – a Brit doing what Boardman couldn’t in the wet – it was the GC contenders, sans Valverde, that made for interesting viewing. That isn’t to say Thomas couldn’t be a contender, but we all know he is here to serve at the beck and call of Chris Froome. And Froome himself didn’t take risks, but rode well and put decent time into his rivals. Richie Porte finished 35 seconds behind Froome with Nairo Quintana a further second back. And so we were left wondering how much of an impact this 0.4% of the race might now have? It’s not major time we’re talking about, but 35 seconds in the bank is solid time for someone like Froome. It allows for him to have a semi-bad day in the final few kilometres of a summit finish already. On the other hand, his opponents are already looking for a way to make up time.
The second stage went as planned on the road from Germany into Liege, Belgium. A suicide break containing a few riders from wildcard teams and one from Cannondale got caught late, before the sprinters done their thing. That said, it was closer than they might have hoped. Taylor Phinney, the Cannondale man of choice today, and Yoann Offredo of Wanty-Gobert, managed to survive into the final kilometre. There they got swept up and Kittel proved too fast for the rest. Returning from illness and still well short on form, Mark Cavendish, managed an impressive fourth. On a side note, Phinny was rewarded for his efforts with the polka-dot jersey, a fitting reward for a popular rider in the peloton. It wasn’t to last though, for the following day his compatriot and team-mate, Nathan Brown, took it from him.
It was stage three though that presented first opportunity for Froome’s rivals to try steal back a few seconds. It was the stage that the Tour entered France for the first time this year, coming from Belgium via Luxembourg. Could they catch him out on that 1.8km uphill finish? It was unlikely but on the run up that climb it was Richie Porte who made the first major move. Was it instinctive as he said post race? You could also suggest it was a move of desperation. Worried already about the 35 seconds he trailed his former team-mate. It didn’t work for the Australian, and Peter Sagan, the perennial favourite, reeled him in. Sagan then found himself at the front, peering at his rivals with a look that suggested, ‘I dare you to try come past me.’ And he was so strong that despite pulling his foot out of his pedal with about 250m to go, he still had time to recover, clip in, and surge away for the win. He never lost his lead. It was a show of strength that I’ve rarely seen before. An image later appeared showing the moment Sagan pulled his foot out. To zoom in on the faces of everyone else is to see men suffering as Sagan turns the screw. He already has a gap on second place, while ten to twelve men back a bigger gap is opening to the grimacing faces of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana.
In the end the stage did little to the times of those expected to still be in the top ten come Paris. Froome finished 9th, on the wheel of Thomas, but ahead of Quintana, Bardet, Porte, Aru and Contador, albeit all on the same time. Dan Martin came third behind Michael Matthews and gained two seconds. The top 25 on the stage looked like that of the UCI World Rankings. All the contenders were up there as well as all the names who feature in the spring classics.
In the general classification Chris Froome jumped up to second behind Thomas. There is a flat stage tomorrow, but with the first serious summit finish on Wednesday, the standings are thus, and set for a shakeup…
1. Geraint Thomas (Sky) in 10h0’31”
2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 12″
3. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) same time
4. Peter Sagan (Bora) @ 13″
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen @ 16″
20. Richie Porte (BMC) @ 47″
21. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) @ 48″
24. Romain Bardet (AG2R) @ 51″
26. Fabio Aru (Astana) @ 52″
27. Alberto Contador (Trek) @ 54″
It took eight stages for this Giro to come to life, but once it did, it did so in the most dramatic of ways. Drama, controversy, action, time gaps, lead change and so many talking points it is hard to know where to begin. Do I start with the stage winner and new race leader, Nairo Quintana? Or the fact his win wasn’t as convincing as expected? Or with the motorbike induced accident at the foot of the Blockhaus climb that left several contenders on the deck, decimating Team Sky’s Giro ambitions?
The later is the logical starting point. It was after all the most dramatic moment, the one that raised the most debate, and the one that came first. Why the police motorbike felt the need to stop at the side of the road I’m not sure, but why he didn’t pull off the road I’ll never know. The result was Wilko Kelderman of the Sunweb team clipped the motorbike rider and went down taking many riders with him.
When the dust cleared, Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa were both a part of the rubble as the race moved up the road and with it their Giro aspirations. Debate began to rage almost immediately about the rights and wrongs of the incident as well as the reaction of Movistar. Nairo Quintana’s team continued to push on the front while many felt they should have waited. I am not one of those many. If this happened 100km from the finish it might be one thing, but it was at the foot of the final climb. If they had been hiding in the pack all day but reacted to this crash by pushing to the front, that would be another thing. The reality was that Movistar had been pushing on the front for quite a while before the crash. Their strategy was well underway and their reward for being at the front was staying clear of any potential crash, regardless of who was to blame. How many rivals were beginning to hurt at the pressure they had been putting on? By easing off, those riders would have gotten a chance to recover. Indeed, had they waited and had the Thomas, Landa, Kelderman and Adam Yates got back on, would they have been able to compete given the hard falls they took? Landa looked hurt and lost a load of time. There was no guarantee the others could go with the move Quintana later forced. The race was on as Movistar suggested after the race and even Thomas admitted to this himself.
So yes, Quintana did force a move but to which only Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali could react. A short way behind the Dutch duo of Tom Dumoulin and Bauke Mollema stuck to their own rhythm. Nibali soon cracked and when Quintana surged again he got rid of Pinot.
It seemed here that Quintana would go on to win the Giro. Seconds would turn into minutes and he would build the kind of gap that no time-trial could threaten. I feared for the rest. But behind Dumoulin kept ticking over. Soon he caught and dropped Nibali and then he rode up to Pinot. The Dutchman didn’t panic when he seen the attacks…he knew he couldn’t go with them. Instead he played the Chris Froome tactic and rode to his own power numbers. Say what you like about these devices being in races, they all have one. And while they’re allowed it’s the smart rider who knows how to interpret the data in real time. It’s the patient rider who doesn’t see the wheel in front distance him and panic by trying to go with it. Instead Dumoulin got into time-trial mode, his best mode, and set about limiting the damage.
And limit it he did. Yes, Quintana won the stage and took a 10 second time bonus with it, but Pinot and Dumoulin came home next only 24 seconds behind. Mollema was at 41 seconds; Nibali at a minute. All will feel they limited their losses well. Quintana will feel a level of confidence in getting the win, but the lack of time put into those behind him will also inspire those rivals.
Tomorrow is a rest day but Tuesday’s time trial should see Quintana cough up his advantage from today and then some. Still, Quintana is playing the longer gain. His hope will be to limit his loses as Dumoulin did today, though his target loss will likely be more than 24 seconds, and then bite back in the high mountains. There is a lot of climbing to come and Quintana will once again need to go the attack as there is yet another time-trial on the final day in Milan. Quintana will tell you that he’s riding into form in this race and that his best is very much to come. That could be true and might be explained in those 24 seconds, but the likes of Nibali might claim the same. The Shark will very much be hoping his best is ahead on what looks to be a brutal final week of climbing.
So while on paper you might say advantage Quintana, I actually think it’s advantage Dumoulin and it’s still wide open for half-a-dozen in this race.
The Paris-Nice and Tirenno-Adriatico are two races in two countries over a similar length that bring out the same kind of contender. In one aspect you have the Grand Tour favourites who use one of the two as a preparation race for their form ahead of the Giro or Tour, and on the other you have single day classics men who use it as a late conditioner ahead of Milan San-Remo. Often we look at who is racing which and then check to see which of the two the last five San-Remo winners, or Tour of Flanders winners, rode in.
In the case of Milan-San Remo, four of the last five winners came out of Paris-Nice whereas at Flanders, four of the last six winners came from Tirreno-Adriatico. To be fair the Tour of Flanders likely comes a little far out for either of these events to have any real baring on its outcome, but I bring it up because of how Tirreno-Adriatico played out this year.
In a big upset to the form guide, the winner of Tirreno-Adriatico was Greg Van Avermaet, a man that nobody would have expected to win the overall of, but who came good thanks to the cancellation of the queen state that would have seen the climbers shine. That isn’t to suggest he’s now the likely winner of either upcoming Monument, though he remains a contender and many feel that with the cancellation of that mountain stage it was the ideal preparation race for Milan-San Remo. If he does pull it off, he’ll become the first man since Fabian Cancellara in 2008 to win MSR after winning Tirreno but more dramatically should he win the Tour of Flanders he’ll be the first man since Roger De Vlaeminck in 1977 to do the Tirreno/Flanders double.
Vincenzo Nibali had hoped to ensure that no such outcome would come to fruition. The Italian won’t be anywhere near Flanders (though we know he can ride the cobbles and I’d love to see him give it a crack, but alas) but had been one of the favourites to win at Tirreno before his targeted stage was removed. The whole episode resulted in a sideshow of complaints and criticism that completely took the shine of the stages that remained and left many debating cycling’s extreme weather protocol rather than Van Avermaets big win. Nibali felt it should have been raced, and his coach Paolo Slongo went as far as to drive the mountain to prove the snow that seen the stage cancelled was no longer there. He then opined that Nibali might skip the Giro if such quick cancellation of stages due to snow became the norm, focusing his training for a run at the Tour instead. Irishman Matt Brammeier then read too much into it and associated Slongo’s remarks as Nibali’s and went off on a rant at the three Grand Tours winner on Twitter. It was all a bit silly.
It’s a fine balancing act when it comes to cancelling stages. Nobody wants the riders to risk their own safety, but then again so much of the sport is about racing through the extremes. Nibali himself won an epic stage in the Giro just a few years ago coming through a blizzard in the pink jersey. Clearly he felt up for more of the same. Cancelling the stage too early is a risk because conditions could easily improve, but likewise you cannot simply move the finish of stage of a race this big so easily. In a way I feel for the organiser: Had they went ahead and it turned into a blizzard, they’d have been criticised by some. As it was, Slongo showed the finish to be OK, and they were criticised by some. I think in general though the riders were happy enough to stay in bed, and who can blame them?
They cancelled a stage of the Paris-Nice too, though in a different manor. They at least started the days racing before deciding that the amount of snow on the road was too much, but by then it had already gotten dangerous for those on the road, hence the each-way-you-lose scenario facing organiser’s. That stage however was much less dramatic to the overall outcome by comparison to Tirreno, though perhaps Alberto Contador might disagree. He finished second to Geraint Thomas by just four seconds in what had been a thrilling duel between himself and the Welshman over the final couple of days. Thomas once again proving his metal in these week long races (to go with his overall win at the Volta ao Algarve). Unlike the Tirreno-Adriatico winner, Thomas is in transition away from the single-day classics, and in doing so has really begun to prove himself to be the ideal week-long stage race winner come GC Super Domestique replacement for Richie Porte at Team Sky, and we saw what he could do at last years Tour without this depth of climbing preparation. That said it won’t be all stage races and this coming week he will attempt to become the first man to do the Paris-Nice – Milan-San Remo double since Laurent Jalabert in 1995. Without getting into the murky waters of how, Jalabert went on to finish 4th in that same years Tour de France, just a few minutes behind his own team-leader of the time, Alex Zülle.
Rider of the week:
And so to rider of the week of 7-13 March and I’m going to go with Thomas over Van Avermaet, if only because the cancelled stage wasn’t as crucial to the overall outcome at Paris-Nice and Thomas, who didn’ win a stage unlike Van Avermaet, fought a brilliant fight on the hills to keep Alberto Contador at bay.
I cannot imagine going to bed last night with the knowledge of the profile that was facing me the next day. It resembled the lower jaw of a Sharks mouth but in reality was the vicious mountains of the Pyrenees: The Col de Portet d’Aspet (2nd cat.), the Col de la Core (1st cat.), the Port de Lers (1st cat.) and the Plateau de Beille (HC). So a series of climbs over 195km, steadily getting worse…just like the weather.
It started out blazing hot but by the top of the final climb which seen rain, hail, a thunder storm and temperatures plumet, it was anything but a hot summers day in the South of France. It was the ideal stage for the risk takers to try and put pressure on Chris Froome and some of his rivals needed to do just that; to attack him several climbs from the finish and on the descents, to weaken the Sky team around him and perhaps force him into a mistake or into the red zone a panic.
As things turned out he couldn’t have had it much smoother. Not a move in anger was made against Froome until the slopes of the vicious Plateau de Beille, though by then Froome still had team-mates Richie Porte and the extremely impressive Geraint Thomas alongside him.
Long before that however the stage winning moves had been made. A large group had gone clear and began to fracture and with 76km to go in the valley just after the col de la Core, Michal Kwiatkowski along with Sep Vanmarcke and Preidler went clear. On the Port de Lers, Preidler was dropped while behind a chasing group of Romain Bardet, Joaquim Rodriguez, Jakob Fuglsang along with a handful of others formed. The peloton itself was a long way behind and no longer a factor in the stage.
The weather conditions continued to get worse while Kwiatkowski and Vanmarcke pushed on. They crossed Port de Lers with a mere five second lead but carried a 1’50” led onto the final climb. With 13.5km to go the tenacious and gritty but heavier built Vanmarcke lost contact and Kwiatkowski was off along and after the stage win. It looked as though he might hang on but gradually he began to slow, his effort to get clear starting to take its toll and as the men behind began to close in, it began to look clear as to why they had let them go before.
Behind it was Rodriguez who looked the strongest and one by one he got rid of his chasing companions and set out in search of the World Champion. With 7.5km to go the catch was made and the balance of the stage swung in the direction of the Spaniard. Fuglsang and Bardet continued to chase but Rordiguez never looked like giving up his lead and took what was, surprisingly, his first ever mountain stage win at the Tour.
Further down the road on the same climb, the attacks of Froome were beginning. First Contador went, and Froome stuck to his steady rhythm and brought him back, then Nibali kicked only for Valverde to follow. Each were reeled in and finally Quintana made a move. Once more Froome measured the chase to within his limits, and soon they were altogether again. Even Froome himself kicked with 4.5km to go but once he realised the others were matching him, he eased off and accepted them all finishing on the same time at the top.
So no major shakeup to the general classification, at least not those hoping to still beat Froome in this Tour, though with each passing stage it’s hard to see that happening.
|1. Rodriguez (KAT) in 5h 40′ 14″
2. Fuglsang (AST) +1′ 12″
3. Bardet (ALM) +1′ 49″
|1. Froome (SKY) in 46h 50′ 32″
2. Van Garderen (BMC) +2′ 52″
3. Quintana (MOV) +3′ 09″
4. Valverde (MOV) +3′ 58″
5. Thomas (SKY) +4′ 03″
6. Contador (TSC) +4′ 04″