Manxman Mark Cavendish sprints to a Stage 2 win (www.cyclingcafe.com.au/Sirotti)
Stages 1 and 2 of the 2012 Tour de France are in the books, and the race has started with few surprises but one strong statement. As expected, there were breakaways, crashes, and sprints…and the team with the maillot jaune has clearly decided they would like to keep it in their ranks for a bit longer. For detailed coverage of the stages, see www.cyclingnews.com.
In past years, when the team run by Director Sportif Johan Bruyneel and led by Lance Armstrong (US Postal, Astana, Radioshack) held the yellow jersey early in the race, they often chose an opportunity in the first stages to let another cyclist – one with no real chance of winning the overall race — claim the jersey. In this way, the team didn’t need to spend the energy to defend it in the first week of the race. Not so this year. RadioShack-Nissan’s powerhouse Fabian Cancellara earned the yellow jersey the first day in the prologue, and the team has shown that they intend to keep it as long as possible. Cancellara won’t win the Tour de France, of course. Once the race enters the brutal ascents of the Alps and Pyrenees, he will lose time to the lighter climbers. What this approachs tells us is that the team doesn’t feel strongly about any of their general classification (overall) contenders, and they’re taking whatever wins they can. Without their team leader, Andy Schleck, who pulled out of the tour after sustaining an injury in the Tour de Suisse in June, their hopes rest on Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck. Kloden prefers to be the second in command and shuns the spotlight; he has stood on the podium in Paris, but never on the top spot. Frank was planning to help his brother Andy to that top step on the Champs Elysee and hasn’t trained to be the winner.
As far as the other general classification (GC) contenders, there hasn’t been much to say. Most of them have stayed safely in the peloton, the main field of riders, finishing with the same time. Cadel Evans, defending his 2011 Tour de France title, seems comfortable 17 seconds off the lead and is well looked after by teammate George Hincapie, who just broke a record with his 17th consecutive Tour de France start. Most of the favorites finished in the same time and maintained the small deficits from the prologue. American Levi Leipheimer, who suffered a fractured tibia when hit by a car earlier this season, stuggled in the middle of the stage but hung tough and minimized his losses. Chris Horner blocked the wind for teammate Frank Schleck and made sure he didn’t drop back.
There are always crashes, particularly in the first week when the racers are nervous and the hierarchy of the race hasn’t yet been established. In Stage 1, four riders went down early but only Rabobank’s Luis Leon Sanchez was slow to get back on his bike and lost about 4 minutes. A larger crash occurred when the peloton encountered a fan taking a photo from the middle of the road. No major injuries sustained in this one. Fans, dogs, and their gear are one of the many dangers of the race. It’s the beauty and the torture of the tour — barricades are only in place at the stage finish, which gives fans access to the race that is unprecedented in any other sport. It also puts the cyclists at increased risk, but it’s unlikely that the race organizers will ever change this policy.
A breakaway of 6 riders stayed away from the peloton for most of the day, but RadioShack-Nissan’s strong men, Jens Voight (looking ageless at 40!) and Yaroslav Popovych, did most of the work at the front of the peloton and never let the gap grow insurmountable. Near the end of the stage, other teams finally gave help, and the break was caught with 9km to go. This would not be a day for the sprinters, however. The stage finished with a technical climb. Many had predicted that it suited Slovakian Peter Sagan, but no one guessed that Cancellara would make a move with 2 km to go. As he accelerated away from the peloton, Sagan jumped with him and rode his back wheel, never sharing the work. With 500 m to go, he pulled out of Cancellara’s slipstream and stole the stage win. Cancellara was disappointed to lose the stage but accomplished his goal of keeping the yellow jersey another day.
Stage 2 was truly business as usual. A breakaway formed, and the peloton caught them. Why bother with a breakaway and spend all the energy? Because the riders in the breakaway get a lot of camera time and therefore good advertising for their sponsors. And sometimes, the breakaway succeeds, giving each rider in the break a higher percentage chance at a stage win. In the case of Stage 1, one of the riders in the break collected King of the Mountains points and now wears the polka dot jersey. Whether he’ll keep it in the real mountains remains to be seen.
This time, the sprinters teams did the work of reeling in the breakaway. The flat finish was perfect for Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish, who blasted past his competitors without the benefit of his own leadout train, proving that he has speed and savvy. The reigning World Road Race champion is lighter than in previous years in preparation for the upcoming Olympics. He now rides for a team built to help Bradly Wiggins win the whole thing, not lead the Isle of Man native in his sprints. Regardless, he sped to his 21st Tour de France stage win. He reminds me of Aussie Robbie McEwen more every year.
Fabian Cancellara and the GC favorites finished in the same time, with no major changes in the standings. Tony Martin (who suffered a scaphoid fracture) and Luis Leon Sanchez, who both started the day banged up and sporting bandages from the chaos of Stage 1, rolled across the finish line 4 minutes later.
Stage 3 brings the riders into France. There are 5 small climbs near the end. Not a good day for the sprinters, but you may see some of the GC contenders make some moves and test the field. If the peloton separates, the riders in front could use those time gaps to pad their lead. Stay tuned!
Melanie Friedlander is a contributor to Steel City Blitz and spends the NFL offseason following professional cycling. You can follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/girlsurgeon.