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″