2017 was the year of Trump as President, Division, North Korean tensions, sexual harassment, Vegas shooting, Hurricanes, a Solar Eclipse and Canada 150. It was also the year that Philippe Gilbert dominated the Tour of Flanders, Chris Froome won the Tour-Vuelta double, and Peter Sagan done the three-Pete at the World Championships.
When Peter Sagan came to the front of this race for the first time, it was but metres from the finishing line. And that’s when it matters after all. The Slovak won again and took his third straight World Championship. The first man to ever achieve the feat. More history for the brilliant Sagan.
As Alberto Contador was grinding his way up the Angliru on Saturday; signing off on his career with one last win, I was rolling into Montreal. As Chris Froome was securing his place in cycling history, with his Tour-Vuelta double, I was securing a parking spot for the weekend. I missed a lot of that final weekend of the Vuelta because of this trip, though I did catch a World Tour race as compensation. And the best spectator one at that.
Let me start right at the top with the major news to come out of today’s stage: Peter Sagan has been disqualified from the Tour de France and sent home. A bombshell that nobody seen coming. Not before the stage and not even after the incident that led to the penalty.
For a lot of this stage I thought the talking point would be about how this was the most boring stage of the Tour. In some ways it was, but it won’t be remembered that way anymore. I felt that once we had digested another bunch gallop that talk would centre around Guillaume van Keirsbulck’s brave solo attack. But bunch gallops in themselves often throw up drama and there was enough inside the final kilometre of today’s stage to keep everyone talking well into the night.
So I apologise to Van Keirsbulck, who attacked from the drop of the flag on a lone bid for glory, but your coverage won’t go beyond this paragraph. He built up a lead of almost 14 minutes at one stage, but it was never going to last. There was shades of Thierry Marie in 1991 and Cederic Vasseur in 1997 (more on that in another post soon), but on the second sprint stage of the Tour, too many behind were still desperate. And that desperation spilled over big time. Van Keirsbulck was caught with 30km to go and the fast men served up a boat load of action.
There was a crash in and around the 1km to go banner that brought down the yellow jersey, though nobody was hurt. Everyone got the same time as stage winner Arnaud Demare. And yes, even he, despite winning his first ever stage, and the first French victory at this years Tour, has become a footnote in the story of the stage. That initial crash was followed by a more brutal collision that seen Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish collide leaving the later on the ground in agony; their respective Tours in tatters. It was the moment that would grab the headlines and spark frantic debate. Not only in the moment but in the aftermath.
As the sprint opened up the momentum of the pack appeared to drift across the road to the right. As each man came off his respective wheel, the right hand barrier drew closer. As Demare accelerated, Sagan made a move to come around him, right as Cavendish himself looked to jump. Cavendish was then left with a decision to make: Go for the ever shrinking gap up the inside, or back off and try again another day. There was no other route; not this close to the line. And for Cavendish there would only be one decision.
As the great racing driver Ayrton Senna once said, “If you no longer go for a gap that exisits, you are no logner a racing driver.” It is also true with sprinters in professional cycling. Mark Cavendish hasn’t won 30 stages at the Tour, all by way of the sprint, by playing it safe. He goes for the gaps and is often rewarded. Today the gap closed.
The debate lies in how it was closed. Which brings us to the question: Was it elbows out or elbows thrown by Sagan?
Elbows out or elbows thrown: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The barriers of outrageous fortune,
Or to take eblows against a sea of troubles,
And by oposing them? To die: to sleep.
William Shakespeare wrote something like that in Hamlet. I doubt I have the meaning correct, but Cavendish risked suffering the barriers to win, meanwhile Sagan sensed trouble coming up the inside and risked death by disqualification to oppose it. Or something like that.
In reality it all happened within a split second. It is hard to know how much time either had to think about what they did, and how much of it happened on instinct. Sprinters have often been known to get the elbows out to defend their line. It looked to me like Sagan did this and Cavendish hit him. In trying to maintain his balance, Sagan’s elbow lurched out further given the illusion that he had thrown it at the Dimension Data rider. But Cavendish was already going down.
For that opinion though, there are others that see the opposite. It was so hard to call and too easy to break it down frame by frame as I myself have. All I do know for certain is the sprinting is crazy. These are the risks and all of them end up on one side or the other from time to time.
But whatever I may think of it, or even what Cavendish or Sagan might make of it, the race jury felt Sagan was more than a little naughty. They had such strength in their belief that Sagan was at fault that they handed him a disqualification from the entire Tour. It was a shocking decision. In doing so the debate went from split on Sagan’s culpability, to outright condemnation on the severity of the penalty. It seemed way too harsh though I await their reasoning. I also await the opinion of both riders.
Did the race jury ignore the name of the rider involved, and judge the incident on merit? Did they ignore the impact of sending such a rider home, not only on fan reaction but in potential ratings? I would hope so. Or did they see this as an opportunity to make an example of him? Had Sagan become a little too aggressive of late and it was time to clamp down? I would hope not.
What is certain now is that the green jersey competition is now wide open. Everyone who can sprint a jot is now licking their chops at the idea of winning the Green Sagan jersey, I mean, Green Points jersey. Losing Sagan and his entertaining brand of brilliance is not good for the race. In equal measure though, opening up the green jersey competition as a contest for the first time in half a decade, has its appeals. Some will place an invisable acestrix beside the eventual winner that says, ‘But Sagan wasn’t here’, but for the likes of Demare and Michael Matthews, an opportunity now presents itself. And should Chris Froome put two minutes into his rivals on the first summit finish of the Tour tomorrow, it might be the only competition left up for grabs.
All that has to come though. In the short term the debates will rage. The debate surrounding the incident and the debate surrounding the decision. The only certainty being that only the Tour can serve up such impassioned views. It will be the climbers turn tomorrow and don’t doubt the chances that we’ll have another story to digest.
But Peter Sagan will be watching it from home like the rest of us.
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″
Alright, it is time to slide right off the fence now and begin some hard and bold predictions. Below are my picks for the top five on GC as well as the respective jersey winners.
Disclaimer: Do not bet on this, not if you value your money. Take it with a shaker full of salt.
TOP 5 IN PARIS (assuming they all make it to Paris, which of course some won’t, but I don’t have it in me to select who might crash out or fall ill!):
1. Chris Froome. Froome often arrives at Tours in great form, gains his time early and then survives to the end. This year though he’s been short on high form but might instead arrive fresh, looking to ride into form. Stage five aside, this Tour seems to suit that approach and might explain why Froome hasn’t looked his usual self. Froome has three Tour wins to his name and that will matter. Last year showed he can be unpredictable by attacking in cross-winds and descents. And if things don’t go as planned, he has an ability to stay calm, regroup, measure his efforts and find a way to get back into a stage or the race. There is nobody more prepared than Chris Froome. He’ll know what he has to do to win and when it comes down to it, he will do enough.
2. Nairo Quintana. More than ever Quintana will be a challenge for Froome. Yes the Colombian rode the Giro, but I’m not sure he did at “full gas”, as riders like to say so often these days. The problem for Nairo is the lack of hard summit finishes. He needs to limit his loses in the prologue and then do something on stage five. He’ll also need to use his team to try and ambush Froome on one of the rolling stages much like they done at last years Vuelta. Someone like Alejandro Valverde will be crucial for this, though how big are his own ambitions? The final time-trial will count against him too, even with the little climb in the middle, but only with regards to Froome. When it boils down to it, Quintana will still be the second best man in this race.
3. Romain Bardet. Results of 15th, 6th, 9th and 2nd would suggest that Bardet’s career is trending upward. At 26 now he is coming into his best years and is no longer a prospect for the future. I still think Froome and Quintana remain a level above, though I would love to wrong about that. It has been so long since a French win at the Tour that everyone would now love to see it happen. Thibaut Pinot is another who could break the drought but he rode hard at the Giro and won’t have the legs of his compatriot. Bardet is an opportunist who rides on instinct. That should help him steal time somewhere, including a stage win and be enough to vault him back onto the podium, albit a step down on last year. Fitting though given he took a slight step back the year after he finished 6th. What he will hope though is that this will force him on to win it in 2018.
4. Alberto Contador. The old dog ain’t what he used to be. In recent years Contador has turned to alternative tactics to try and win Grand Tours. Ambushing his rivals with attacks when they least expect it, often a long way from the finish. This route looks tailor made for that kind of racing and so Contador at the very least will ignite the race. The likes of Sky and Movistar look too strong to let him get away with it though. He’ll also be hoping and watching for cross-winds in the early stage with which to grab time to try and maintain in the mountains. He’s still very much capable but it is worth remembering his last Grand Tour win was the 2015 Giro. It has been eight years (seven if you asked him) since he last won the Tour.
5. Richie Porte. The Australian has had a very sold season thus far, but we’re only able to measure him by his results in one week races. The three week Grand Tours are a different animals and throughout his career he has always come up quite short. Sometimes through bad luck, at other times through a bad day, but often because he was riding for Froome. Free at last in 2016 he lost time early due to a mechanical and could never get back on terms. He rode well and finished fifth and I expect much the same this year. I’m not sure whether it will be a mechanical or legs, but one stage at least will catch him out.
Rest of the top 10: Fabio Aru, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema, Simon Yates, Alejandro Valverde.
GREEN JERSEY: Peter Sagan. This doesn’t need any explanation. There are about 11 stages that suit him to win this year, though it is more likely he comes in around 3-4 stage wins. That won’t matter though, it’s his ability to pick up points at various points on rolling or mountain stages that will make the difference. The other sprinters cannot do this. The only other rider who might push him close is Michael Matthews. The Australian is a similar style of rider to Sagan, but in my view still a level below.
MOUNTAIN JERSEY: Rafal Majka. He has won it twice in the last three years. A team-mate of Peter Sagan, his Bora team will no doubt let him loose to chase stages and grab climbing points. It would be a fine Tour for them should both Majka and Sagan bring home the green and polka-dot jerseys. His biggest threat might come from a pair of Frenchmen in Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland. Neither have designs or desires on the GC and both will be looking for stage wins. If that leads them to being in the mix for the mountains classification, both may give it a run. I always felt someone like Rolland could go the Richard Virenque route when it came to targeting this jersey, much as Sagan does the green. He’s never won up to now though, but now seems like a good time to start. Still, as a previous winner, I expect Majka to want it that little bit more from the beginning.
WHITE JERSEY: Simon Yates. His biggest challenger here will be Louis Meintjes. The young South African cracked the top 10 last year and will be desperate to do so again. He didn’t win white though, instead losing it to Adam Yates. This time it will be the other Yates twin who gets in his way. A top ten finish on GC might be enough to secure this jersey this time out. Last year Adam Yates finished 4th overall, and while Simon would love to match this, he may have to settle for taking the polka-dot jersey.
TEAM CLASSIFICATION: Movistar. Top to bottom Team Sky are stronger that Movistar. The difference is that with so much emphasis on helping Froome, others will sacrifice any GC ambitions and thus hurt their standing here. You could say the same about Movistar riders aiding Quintana, but Valverde is still a sure bet for a top ten finish.
SUPER-COMBAVITITY AWARD: Thomas De Gendt. This one is a bit of a shot in the dark. It will all come down to who feels good to get in a lot of breaks and show aggression. There’s one of about 150 this could be. Peter Sagan won it last year and will be a huge favourite again this time. He’ll get in plenty of breaks, he should win a hanful of stages and he’ll ignite the race. But then there is De Gendt. He often spends more time in breaks than anyone else, many felt he deserved to win it last year. Disappointed that he didn’t, he will be out to make amends in this Tour, I reckon.
It has to be the image of the cycling season so far. Philippe Gilbert standing solo on the finishing line of the Tour of Flanders in the Belgian champions jersey with his bike held high above his head, victorious. It was everything the locals could want from such a race. And what a race it was. It always is. But we don’t usually get an individual performance quite like that. We don’t usually get such drama from so far out.
The Muur-Kapelmuur is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour of Flanders. In recent years though it hasn’t featured due to its location on a new route, but that changed for 2017. The climb was back in, but early in the race. Too far out from the finish to factor, or so we thought. They hit it with 95km to go, and but for the forlorn hopes up the road, the pack was still together. As they hit it, Gilbert brought his Quickstep team to the front. Rivals, such as Sagan and Van Avermaet hung back. Too early, right? Wrong.
Quickstep hit the climb hard. Teammates Tom Boonen and Gilbert looked at one another and gave a nod. The power went down and the race blew wide open. Over the top a gap had opened, but again it seemed to soon to matter. It would likely come back together or those behind would bridge across. Gilbert, Boonen et al would sit up and save their matches for later. But nobody knew how many matches Gilbert carried. With so long still to go, Gilbert pushed on, urging the group to work. And the group was dangerous. Sep Vanmarcke was there, so was Alexander Kristoff. Luke Rowe, Jasper Stuyven and a cluster of others were also present. Sagan and Van Avermaet were not.
For the next 40km they pressed on, led more often than not by Gilbert. It now seemed as though he was working for a magical Boonen-Flanders send-off. They caught the early break with 67km left and at the time held a 1:10 advantage over the Sagan pack. Still, too early to panic, but very much time to chase. As they hit the Oude Kwaremont for the second time, with 55km left, the gap was down to half a minute. It was now or never, and Gilbert went. It was a powerful effort up the climb; the gap began to stretch and soon the elastic snapped and Gilbert was alone. The impetus of the group that he was with faltered when Vanmarcke brought down Rowe in a crash, and on the Paterberg Sagan and Van Avermaet bridged across. Now it was one man against the rest.
His lead hovering between 50 seconds and a minute. His effort was sustaining but the debate began to rage among fans about whether he could hold on? Given how long he had been on the attack, leading the initial split and then going alone, and given the hard climbs to come, he was certain to blow. Right? Wrong.
I left the sofa for a moment with to put on the kettle with Gilbert still 55 seconds to the good. I was gone half that time but returned to see Boonen standing at the side of the road and Sagan on the attack. If the Quickstep plan had been for Boonen to counter any catch of Gilbert, it ended here. A chain problem forced a bike change and it wasn’t much better. His dream retirement now goes down to his final race at Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
As for Sagan, he had reduced the chasing pack to a handful and still the pursuit across Flanders continued. Over the Kruisberg the gap still held. Gilbert looked mighty.
On the Kwaremont it was time to act once more and Sagan made his next move. A powerful attack…and then he crashed. As sudden as the sentence itself. One second the world champion is powering on the front, leaving rivals in his wake, going in hunt of the Belgian champion, the next, he’s down. The only two who could follow him, Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, came down too. Nobody was quite sure how it happened though it later transpired that Sagan clipped a jacket slung over the barrier and in doing so his wheel turned into the foot of the barrier. It was a huge fall and the world champions head hit the cobbled ground hard. He got up, but the race had long since left him behind. It might be easy to blame the fan, but Sagan was riding so close to the barrier in search of a smoother line and these are the risks of riding so close to where a hoard of excited fans stand.
Van Avermaet was up quick and chasing but by now Gilbert looked safe. He turned into the wind for the ride into Oudenaarde but he was able to hold on and walk across the line with his bike above his head in glory.
Debate will rage about whether Sagan could have led a chase that caught Gilbert? We’ll never know. Gilbert was almost a minute ahead when they crashed. He won by 29 seconds and that included the celebration. Van Avermaet must have lost 20-30 seconds in the crash, but how much did Gilbert measure his effort towards the end, using his lead to his advantage rather than pushing on and risking a late blow?
What we do know is that Gilbert’s effort was mighty. He caught his closest rivals napping with that initial move on the Muur and he proved all doubters wrong by bidding out for solo glory so far from home. In winning the Tour of Flanders he joins Eddy Merckx, Moreno argentin and Rik Van Looy in winning Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Lombardia and the Worlds in their career. This may have been the highlight ride of his fine career.